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“Frogscript • Monkeys”
As I recall, the first time I saw a monkey was when I was a little girl. I was only seven or eight, my mother took me on a picnic together with her sister, her sister’s husband and several other children. We walked through a mountain forest and, by the side of a stream, came across some small pools in which we discovered all sorts of little creatures: tadpoles, tiny fish, as well as shrimp. At this point, the children in our group took off their shoes and socks, rolled up the legs of their pants, and started playing in the water-pools and at the same time trying to catch something.
All of a sudden, a large pack of monkeys appeared out of nowhere and went past near to where we were playing. Because there were so many of them — several dozen, at least — I felt as if we were being surrounded. What struck me most of all was the great big one: he was dark-brown in colour, but on his head and on his bottom there were large patches of bright-red skin. At the moment our eyes met, I had the feeling that he was rather ferocious — perhaps because of his red face — and, because there were no grown-ups around and because there were so many monkeys, we didn’t dare make a sound. Instead, we stood perfectly still and watched them as they continued on past us. As soon as they had gone, we ran back to the adults to tell them what we’d seen. Laughing, they said: “This place is called Monkey Mountain. There really are a lot of monkeys here!”
This “Monkey Mountain” is actually a place in Hong Kong called the Kam Shan Country Park and a large number of monkeys really do live there. However, what many people don’t know is that the ancestors of these monkeys were not native to Hong Kong but immigrants from elsewhere. Many years ago, monkeys were introduced here along with the building of reservoirs. Back in those days, the mountains were covered in a poisonous plant known as maa chin. All parts of this plant are toxic, but the fruits are especially so. Curiously, however, these fruits are not only not poisonous to monkeys but are something they really like to eat, and for this reason the government of the time introduced two species — rhesus monkeys and macaques — in the hope that they would control the growth of maa chin and thereby avoid to the fullest possible extent their fruits from falling into the reservoirs and polluting the water supply. The monkeys we see today are all distant relations of those immigrants.
Like us, monkeys are primates and it is probably for this reason that they live in packs and place a lot of emphasis on the notion of status. The pack-leaders are responsible for taking care of the old, the weak, and the less powerful, and now when I think back to my childhood meeting with monkeys, it is quite possible that the large animal I locked eyes with was one of those strongmen whose job it was to keep a close eye on us human beings just to make sure we didn’t get too close.
I am extremely fond of hiking, and one of the great pleasures I get from going into the mountains is the possibility of meeting with different kinds of creatures and keeping count of whether I’ve seen representatives from each of the major animal families: since there are many different kinds of insects existing in large numbers, I can count on seeing some of them; in forests, there is really not much difficulty in coming across a few woodland birds; in the case of lizards and amphibians, I have to be in the mood to hunt them out, but I always manage to meet some of them, especially lizards; but when it comes to mammals, even if I’m really in the mood, I can go out hiking ten times and not have even a single sighting! We’re fortunate that Monkey Mountain exists in Hong Kong. If you feel the urge to see some monkeys, all you have to do is walk along a leisure trail suitable for all members of the family and you won’t be disappointed!
Perhaps it’s too easy to see monkeys in Hong Kong. There are certain people who like to feed them — perhaps worried that they don’t have anything to eat, or possibly in the hope of having closer contact with them, or even perhaps because they don’t want to waste any food they didn’t finish during their picnic. No matter how many appeals the government makes, they go on feeding the monkeys, thereby drastically changing both their eating habits and their behaviour. A great deal of human food is fried in fat or oil and contains a large number of flavourings and so monkeys are sure to take a liking to it. Eating a lot of such treats can make them less fond of the tender leaves and fruit they usually eat. The worst thing is the plastic bags we carry with us: monkeys think there is sure to be food in them and so try to snatch them away and, in the process, accidentally causing harm to us. As a result, a number of people are now afraid of monkeys. For this reason, everyone should take heed of the warnings not to feed wild animals!
Actually, monkeys are very interesting animals. I remember hiking one day and sitting down for a rest because I felt rather tired. All of a sudden, the hitherto calm forest filled with the sound of branches thrashing and rubbing against one another. This sound got closer and closer, and grew more frequent in the process, and before I knew it a large money passed by right next to me, and after that a second one, and then a third . . . Gradually as I watched I saw the younger monkeys with their lighter coloured fur and longer bodies chasing one another, clowning around and jumping back and forth in the trees — each one doing what it did best! After that, I saw a money mother carrying a very cute monkey baby as she walked. So magical and sweet was my first impression, because the baby was hanging upside-down, holding tightly on to its mother with its arms and legs.
Some of the monkeys preferred to jump right up to the tops of trees where the branches were at their thinnest and remain up there, plucking off the most tender, emerald green leaves and eating them. You could see how demanding they were in their tastes: once they’d picked a leaf they’d inspect it carefully, and if they saw something they didn’t like, they’d throw it away and pick another, and then another, until they found one to their liking and pop it in their mouth. I was reminded of a kind of tea known as “Monkey Picked”, a kind of quite high-grade Iron Goddess Oolong tea, and I wished I could have enjoyed a nice cup of it myself at that moment. I wonder if the owners of tea-plantations have ever actually considered training monkeys to pick their tea-leaves for them — in reality, when I think how mischievous monkeys are, I can’t imagine them behaving well enough to do the job properly!
Translated by Simon Patton