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Inside job: monkey business

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: monkey craftsman

'They can play anything now – not just the erhu and zither, but the saxophone. Or form a band,' fifth-generation hairy monkey maker Xiao Jing tells me in his workshop, surrounded by thousands of miniature monkeys. And a stuffed wolf.


'They can compete in the Olympics and play basketball. Anything.' Just to be clear, Master Xiao makes maohou, hairy monkeys, out of fuzzy magnolia buds and gruesome insect limbs. It all started around 140 years ago in the late Qing when a medicine shop owner outside Xuanwumen was being bullied. One day his medicines were knocked to the ground and the items fell together to form a figure with limbs and a head. Because the Chinese medicines were already made up of limbs and heads – of insects. The owner then made little figurines to mock the mob and a Beijing craft was born.


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The rather unsettling insect legs are not technically the limbs of insects, but parts of the sloughed exoskeleton of the cicada.


'The most popular scene is the monkey on a horse – mashang feng hou,' says Xiao. A monkey sits proudly atop a horse with a banner saying ‘hou’ (侯), homophonous with the 'hou' of monkey and meaning a high official.


We get to work. Xiao takes out his toolbox, which is effectively a mobile cicada catacomb, and we pick out the limbs and choose our buds. I lower the cicada helmet down onto the glob of glue on my bud. The arms are glued into the fur, aligned with the centre of the skull and precisely two millimetres down the shoulder.

Then the claw-legs are glued on and we paint its nose and dot its eyes.


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'Now you need a prop for your monkey – or what’s the point?' he points out. I choose to make mine a street monkey brandishing skewers of candied haw apples, tanghulu. 'Good, that’s one of the easier ones, as long as we don’t caramelise them with glue.'


'At the beginning they were much simpler,' says Xiao as he rips my monkey’s left arm off because I hadn’t planned what I wanted to do from the outset so the limb is incorrectly positioned to gayly wave its stick of treats. 'No faces or props back then.'


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I confuse Xiao by asking whether he makes any other animals or just monkeys. 'But other animals are just animals. Monkeys look like humans so we do monkeys to say things about humans.' I look at the ballerinas, wedding parties and street scenes lining the studio and see his point.


As I push microscopic beads onto a nylon stalk to make the tanghulu, Xiao says that there’s been a real revival of Beijing’s hairy monkey-making in recent years, but they’re mainly newcomers who haven’t passed it down through the family. Will there be a sixth generation? He has three apprentices, but in terms of keeping it in the family, things look shaky. 'My wife doesn’t want the kid to take it on. The money is bad; the job isn’t secure and it’s bad for your health. My hips, shoulders, eyes all take the strain from making the monkeys all day.'


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Assembling monkeys is only part of a monkey-maker’s work: they also make the scenes they inhabit – hutongs, theatre stages, fire stations, basketball courts, a scale model of China Lounge club at Gongti – some costing over 10,000RMB.


'Some people think things have to stay traditional, but we don’t agree. That’s why our monkeys play the saxophone and have basketball tournaments. Things won’t last if you try to keep them the same forever,' concludes Master Xiao who makes over 10,000 maohou a year. 'And yours looks drunk because you didn’t glue its legs on properly.'

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By: Frank Hersey

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