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China's booming monkey business

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Monkey 'school' draws millions in investment despite backlash

The students answering maths questions are monkeys. We are not insulting anyone, the students are real monkeys.

Welcome to China's monkey school, where the simians don frilly dresses and learn to perform backflips and answer maths questions. They are also taught by trainers to waltz and play rock drums.

Shows featuring performing monkeys, popular in China and throughout Asia, are expecting a boost in the Lunar New Year of the monkey, which began on Monday.

But they are facing a growing backlash from Chinese people concerned about animal welfare.

"It's like a human school, but using monkeys," said Mr Takeshi Soma, the Japanese headmaster of the facility at a zoo in Dongying, Shandong province.

His charges are about a dozen macaques from snow-capped mountains near Tokyo, which receive one-on-one tuition from a team of live-in instructors.

"This kind of training is the first in China," the tracksuited Mr Soma said.

He watched as staff in sequined waistcoats clothed the monkeys in multicoloured gowns, leading them on stage in a mock Viennese ball.

"I think this is the only place that does that," he said.

Four of the animals are training as a mock rock band, led by a monkey with a red bow tie and pink toy microphone.

But a recent rehearsal ended with one macaque walking away from a miniature drum kit after a few tender taps, and another slamming down its plastic guitar before running to stage left.

"Our monkeys don't listen to us very well. But that is what's funny about it all. Monkeys being natural and being themselves," added Mr Soma.

Such performances have a centuries-old history in China, and now monkeys are often seen at country fairs catching knives and riding bicycles.

As China's economy has boomed over the years, the scale of the shows has increased. More than a dozen zoos in the country now offer monkey performances.

China has no laws protecting non-endangered species, but a growing animal protection movement has condemned the displays as cruel.

Their cause was aided when a video of a bear biting and clawing a monkey after the two fell off their bicycles in an "Animal Olympics" in the eastern city of Shanghai went viral in 2013.

One staff member at the Yangjiaping zoo in Chongqing said that monkey shows had been cancelled this year "because of a complaint about animal cruelty".

Monkeys at the Dongying school sleep in bare concrete-walled enclosures, and sometimes receive light slaps from their trainers.

Headmaster Soma admitted: "How should I put this? They are tough things. I don't think monkeys like the school."

But the backlash has not deterred investors, with nearly 19 million yuan (S$4 million) spent on the school, said Ms Xiao Jingxia, president of the local government backed China-Japan Friendship Association.

It is a partnership with Japanese monkey troupe Nikko Saru Gundan, whose animals regularly star on TV shows in Japan.

"We hope to attract audiences from all over China," Ms Xiao said, as monkeys were led around in front of her on leashes.

"We would like to take advantage of the monkey year for publicity... This will be a year of promotion." - AFP

It's like a human school, but using monkeys.

- Mr Takeshi Soma, the Japanese headmaster of the facility