September 6th, 2010

cats, shakespeare

[CAT] On the cats of Houtong, Taiwan


The Taiwanese village of Houtong, located just outside the capital of Taipei, has managed to find new life after its coal mining economy went under: its feral cat community has attracted visitors from far and wide.

Visitors' raves on local blogs have helped draw cat lovers to fondle, frolic and photograph the 100 or so resident felines in Houtong, one of several industrial communities in decline since Taiwan's railroads electrified and oil grew as a power source.

Most towns have never recovered, but this tiny community of 200 is fast reinventing itself as a cat lover's paradise.

"It was more fun than I imagined," said 31-year-old administrative assistant Yu Li-hsin, who visited from Taipei. "The cats were clean and totally unafraid of people. I'll definitely return."

On a recent weekday afternoon, dozens of white, black, grey and calico-coloured cats wandered freely amid Houtong's craggy byways, while visitors captured the scene with cellphone cameras and tickled the creatures silly with feather-tipped sticks.

One passage in the article indicates how this cat-driven tourism has been precipitated by Taiwan's demographic changes, as fertility rates drop and foreign women immigrate to compensate for a male-biased sex ratio.

Indonesian-born Sumarni, 35, who married a local man six years ago, says she is grateful to the tourists for relieving the town's isolation.

"My three-year-old daughter gets to play with some children of her age when visitors bring their kids here," she said. "There is really not any playmate of her age in the community."

Sumarni has also benefited financially from the tourist influx, piggybacking it to set up a profitable food stall next to her modest home.

Regardless of possible origins of the Houtong phenomenon in Taiwan's demographic transition, I can't help but think that the community--the cats, and their humans--will become a still bigger tourist destination in the future.

This blog post goes into more detail about Houtong and its cats, with photos. The image I used to illustrate this post comes from Flickr's Winnie Chan, who has an entire photo set full of wonderful photos from Houtong and neighbouring communities: go, see them.