A ROW that has been steadily brewing between two upmarket tea sellers looks ready to boil over into the law courts. Mr Thomas Li, of the Fook Ming Tong tea shops in Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, has been taking strong exception to rival retailer Mr Vesper Chan's assertion he is selling ''tea picked by monkeys''. Mr Chan, who owns The Best Tea House Company with outlets in Cheung Sha Wan and Causeway Bay, started the rumpus when he placed an advertisement in Ming Pao for the tea late last year. Tea picked by a monkey's fair hand is claimed to be of superior quality. An enraged Mr Li retaliated with his advertisement claiming there was no such thing as monkey-picked tea and adding the stuff Mr Chan was selling was an inferior brew. Mr Chan was quick to reply with ''proof'' the tea had existed for centuries and that he had every right to sell it. Since then the argument has raged back and forth, and there are indications it could come to a head in the form of legal action soon. Mr Chan's company sells the ''monkey-pick'' oolong variety tea from Fujian for $65 a tael, saying the high price is justified because of the rarity and high quality of the blend; by comparison Fook Ming Tong's most expensive tea sells for $70 a tael. ''They say the best quality is 'monkey-pick', and that is why it is so expensive. We've tasted it, and it is nothing more than a blending of different oolong teas,'' said Mr Li. He has gone as far as to consult Chinese tea experts from the mainland, most of whom, according to Mr Li, had never heard of it before. Undeterred by Mr Li's scoffing, Mr Chan retorted: ''The name represents the kind of tea which, in the old days, was very precious. ''Then, this type of tea used to grow on cliffs and people could not reach it, so they would train monkeys to go down and pick it. At least, that was the story. ''But we must tell people exactly why the tea has this name. We are not suggesting it is still picked by monkeys, but we know that is how it used to be done.'' Because of this reputation, Mr Chan said the tea had to be highly priced. ''I have done my own market research, and I have found that our quality is far better. Other shops have used this same label, but they used poor quality leaves,'' he said. The dispute looks as though it is also being fuelled by something stronger than oolong - the volatile spirit known as professional pride. Mr Chan described himself as the pioneer of Chinese tea in Hongkong, while Mr Li, the man responsible for putting Lalique and Baccarat crystal on the tables of Hongkong's rich and famous, proudly describes himself as a tea connoisseur.