I was exploring Nanjing Road, which is one of the famous touristy parts of Shanghai. I was alone, minding my own business as I pushed my way through the crowded sidewalk (there is no personal space in China), when I noticed a man up ahead. There wasn’t anything special about this man. His clothes were ragged and dirty, his hair was greasy and unkempt, and he was missing most of his teeth. He was obviously homeless and I felt bad for him, but as I came closer I noticed that he holding a leash.
Attached to this leash was a monkey.
It was small, maybe about a foot and a half tall, with light brown fur and a dark, pinkish brown face. I had just enough time to think, “Holy shit, a monkey!” when it jumped on me, wrapped its arms around my calf and hung there, looking up at me with its muddy brown eyes. At the same time, a filthy metal bowl was shoved in my face and the homeless man said, “Qian.” (Money)
At first I was too shocked to react. There was a monkey on my leg. A monkey. On my leg. I could feel its little fingers pulling on the fabric of my jeans and two thoughts crossed my mind: “Oh God, what if it’s carrying some kind of disease?” and then, “Oh God, what if it starts CLIMBING?” The man, still pushing the bowl (which I guessed was also the bowl that the monkey drank water from) in my face, said again, “Qian.”
I said, “No.” and tried to walk away, but the monkey wouldn’t let go. It was small, so I probably could have run even with it attached to my leg, but as soon as I took a step the man stood in my way and said, more severely this time, “QIAN.”
Now he was starting to piss me off. You can’t trap people and make them pay you to let them go. I admit, it’s better than pick pocketing, but still. I don’t know how good his English was, but I pointed to the monkey and said, “He needs to let go of me. NOW.” I didn’t expect him to understand, or to let me go, but after a brief pause he pulled on the leash and the monkey jumped off my leg. I guess he realized that he couldn’t scare the money out of me (I was plenty scared, but I think I looked more angry than anything).
As I walked away, I wondered how often that actually works. How many times does a scared tourist throw money in the bowl to make the monkey go away? I saw a few homeless-looking men with monkeys on this street. Is there a secret organization in Shanghai that uses monkeys to scam money out of tourists? The street was crowded with mostly Chinese people and I didn’t see this happen to anyone else, so I assume that he targeted me because I looked like a tourist.
The moral of the story is: if you look really pissed off, the monkeys will let go of your leg (probably).