From Coal to Cats: The Amazing Reinvention of Houdong


2011 / 6月

Su Hui-chao /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Josh Aguiar

A faded coalmining town that was once little more than a pit stop on the way to Jiufen has become a tourist hotspot, thanks to its resident cat population. What is it about this "cat paradise" that holds such tremendous appeal?

"Times sure have changed!" says one older gentleman surnamed Chen, expelling his words with a long sigh.

Chen is from Houdong, but he never identified himself as such when discussing his origins with outsiders. After all, people invariably hadn't heard of it, nor had they heard of the Ruisan coal mine that was its chief feature. You could talk until you were blue in the face, but it wouldn't do you any good.

These days, more often than not he tells people he's from Houdong instead of Jiufen, the popular daytrip destination on the north coast. Tourists now make special trips to Houdong just to see the cats, making a side excursion to see Jiufen, since "it's in the vicinity." Not just people from nearby Taipei, either. People come from as far away as Kaohsiung and Pingtung in the south. And not just Taiwanese, for that matter. There have been visitors all the way from Japan, Korea, and the United States.

Now entering cat territory

It's a whole new era, Chen comments to Jian Peiling, alias "Mrs. Dr. Kitty."

Because her husband Lin Zhengyi is director at Zhongshan Veterinary Hospital in Taipei, Jian, originally a piano teacher, has taken to calling herself "Mrs. Dr. Kitty," or "Mrs. Kitty," for short.

The stationmaster at Houdong train station, a gentleman surnamed Wang, has been able to witness the change from a close vantage. Beginning in 2009, his station welcomed an average of 600 travelers per day. On the weekends, that number shot past 1000. Those figures are more than 10 times greater than the traffic received in the past. In 2006, a blogger fresh from a visit to Houdong described it as a lonely but serene little mountain town that time had forgotten. In early spring of 2007, Mrs. Dr. Kitty set out to photograph the pride of cats after learning of their existence through the Internet. That day, suffice to say, was a watershed in the fate of the town.

It was a nondescript day four years later in mid-April, 2011 when Mrs. Dr. Kitty arrived with her Pentax 645D. Northern Taiwan was shaking off the long winter's slumber, and the Bretschneidera sinensis flowers so typical of Houdong were beginning to bud.

Now a professional photographer, she first flags down the stationmaster to discuss a pet product company's proposal to put up public hygiene information on the walls by the tracks. After that she threads her way past the pinwheels festooned on the bridge that is the only entry into Houdong's Guangfu Borough. Guangfu is suffused with charming little signs saying things like: "It is not advisable to bring dogs," "Please, no flash photography," and "Warning: now entering cat territory." Also scattered throughout are the delicate little wooden houses where the cats take refuge from the moist chill of winter.

There are about 50 cats in Houdong now. Most of the tomcats have been neutered, though a smattering of pregnant females show that the efforts have been far from exhaustive. Cats are everywhere: on roofs, stairs, broken windows, in flowery nurseries and clumps of grass, even in the bamboo hats left outside the entrances to people's homes.

From yesterday's ashes

The fate of so many mining communities has been described by the same arc: a rise to prosperity followed by descent into ruin.

Back in 1966, the owner of an economically imperiled mine in Joban, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, hit upon an interesting way to maintain the viability of his property. He relabeled the abandoned mine district "the Joban Hawaiian Center," and hired dance instructors from Tokyo to teach the local girls to dance the Hula. The story was later documented in the film Hula Girls.

If Houdong's story ever made it onto celluloid, at its essence it would be a lesson in realizing dreams. Its backdrop would be an abandoned mine, the upper reaches of the Keelung River, all framed by a ring of mountains. The cats and the residents of Guangfu would be the main attraction, no doubt, portraying themselves onscreen. Mrs. Dr. Kitty and the volunteers of the Houdong Cat Lovers Society would be the project's hot-blooded auteurs. As for the visitors, well, they would furnish the audience, as well as the occasional extra.

On the train line connecting Taipei to Yilan, Houdong is the stop immediately after Ruifang. The trip from Taipei takes less than an hour. According to the Ruifang Town History, a troop of monkeys made their dwelling in a small cave in the nearby mountains, hence the choice of the Chinese characters "monkey" (hou) and "cave" (dong). In its heyday, Houdong was the largest coal supplier in all of Taiwan, and the town was home to 2-3000 full-time residents. The miners took issue with the inclusion of the character "cave" in the town's name on account of it being written with the water radical-most inauspicious for those whose on-the-job hazards include drowning-and at their behest it was changed to another character pronounced identically, but containing the stone radical instead. Then in 1961, the government altered the other character in the town's name by eliminating the hound radical in "monkey," which they deemed insufficiently elegant. A movement began in 1991 to restore the original name, so as to honor the area's historical roots. In 2005, the Taipei County (now New Taipei City) Government passed a resolution to reinstate the original name; the signage at the train stations, however, falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, and so the name has not been changed there, though they rather amusingly include the old name in parentheses.

Film director Wu Nien-jen grew up in Dacukeng, a district in Houdong. Seeing his father descend into the mineshaft day after day for a career that wreaked cumulative havoc on his lungs provided the inspiration for Wu's movie A Borrowed Life, shot on location in Houdong.

The coalmines have since become a relic of history. That history has become the centerpiece of a tourism campaign with the New Taipei City Tourism and Travel Department's opening of the Houdong Coal Mine Museum in the summer of 2010. As the museum's goodwill ambassador, Wu's first order of business was to make clear to the public that "there's more to Houdong than just cats."

Kitty sanctuary

Nonetheless, however pleasant the mining museum, the coal transport bridge, the Japanese shrine, and the Jinzibei Passageway may be, by themselves they remain insufficiently alluring to tourists. It is, in the final analysis, the cats that are the feature attraction, a fact not lost on the Tourism Department, the stationmaster, or the general public.

The first trip Mrs. Dr. Kitty made out to Houdong, the cats were wary of people, flashing their tails in warning and fleeing at their approach. The second trip, however, she was swarmed by an army of cats clamoring for food, and was startled to the point that she nearly tripped over herself. Guangfu is a closed-off area and the cats enjoy advantages that would make their citified brethren jealous. Stray cats in the cities often don't make it past age two due to automobiles' constant menace.

Guangfu Borough has become a bit of a ghost town over the years. Only 40-50 full-time residents remain, and most of them are quite advanced in years. The former borough chief, Zhou Jinyi, and his wife, Wu Lihua, are both very fond of cats. Every day when they cook, they make sure to take the cats' portions into account. Four of the most famous cats, the so-called "four kings," in the community-Runny Nose, Black Nose, Kirin Tail, and Big Head-are wards of the Zhou household. The other stray cats, though bereft of permanent homes, frequently receive leftover scraps from elderly residents.

With no natural enemies and a dependable source of nutrition, the cats of Guangfu were fruitful and multiplied, from four different troops each numbering in the single digits to a population nearing 100. By the time Mrs. Kitty arrived on the scene, residents were becoming alarmed at the turn of events.

Mrs. Kitty would like to be involved in every facet of the cats' welfare, from feeding, to veterinary care, to reproductive control; yet she realizes that the most important thing is to reach out to the people of Guangfu, to address their concerns and to show them what benefits her service will introduce to the entire community. Without that respect, she would surely incur resentment and suspicion: "This woman cares more about cats than people!" Moreover, she knows that it is beyond her ability to induce everyone to love cats.

Building this kind of trust takes time. Before Houdong ever was a media sensation, Mrs. Kitty was making the rounds, chatting up the neighbors so as to make friends. On these early trips she didn't even bring food to feed the cats; her purpose was to reassure the locals that she was there to assist, not to instigate or criticize. Only with a foundation of mutual trust firmly in place could things proceed.

Author Chu Tien-hsin fed stray cats for 10 years. She used to traverse the breadth and length of Taipei, borough by borough, preaching the gospel of TNR-"trap, neuter, return." But by 2010, after four years of pushing the policy and after over NT$3 million in public expenditure, only 1,765 cats had been successfully sterilized. Taipei still had an estimated 11,000 cats roaming the streets, and Taiwan as a whole had more than 300,000. Stabilizing the population required 70% sterilization, light years beyond anything the government had achieved up to that point.

According to research conducted overseas, TNR as a strategy has not lived up to expectations. Cats possess an uncanny knack for self-preservation. They seem to know that their posterity is in jeopardy, and so they run faster, produce more offspring. Call it instinct, perhaps. Or maybe it's just nature achieving balance.

Chu and other animal conservationists consistently encounter the same criticism: Why worry about cats when people are starving? Certainly your efforts would be better spent assisting human beings?

"If I can't muster any sympathy for the hapless creatures that I see every day, how I am I supposed to worry about poverty and starvation, which are far more abstract, let alone do something about them?" she replies.

The power of anthropomorphism

"I don't hate people just because I love cats," says Chu, drawing a firm line.

Mrs. Kitty approaches things differently. Neither melodramatic nor extreme, she is active, sunny and upbeat. She uploads photographs of the cats to her blog, gives them names and recounts their exploits, all the while supplying emotional underpinning to lend it real human drama. The cat actors project a contagious hilarity, earning them the affection of many followers on the Web, most notably young people, as well as cat lovers and photography buffs.

The web response was greater than anything she could have expected. All of the sudden, people were taking trips to see the cats of Houdong in person, with some even sticking around as volunteers. Momentum continued to build to the point that the Houdong Cat Lovers Society page on Facebook had more than 3000 members.

The combination of volunteer muscle, coordination via the Web, and cooperation from local residents has resulted in two successful events: a cat photography exhibition in September, 2009 and the Kitty Cleanup Extravaganza held on October 31 the same year. Scores of participants flooded through the train station. One thousand volunteers came together to clean and sterilize the feline dwelling while the media provided coverage. In the history of Taiwan tourism, never before had there been a cat-centered event.

The volunteers maintain a credo that the less money spent on an event, the greater will be the resultant creativity and emotional impact. In March of 2010 featuring the cats (of course) and pinwheels, the volunteers didn't have a budget for the pinwheels-that was left up to the event's participants, who brought their own.

Of course the dollar still has its use. In order to raise funds to pay the veterinary expenses of sick cats, at Mrs. Kitty's direction they began selling postcards featuring illustrations made by one of the volunteers, as well as developing other related products. They also set up a donation box at the entrance to Guangfu.

In 2010, one of Mrs. Kitty's photographs won the "Golden Cat Award" in a competition in Japan's Tashiro Island (also renowned for its cats). Her victory was covered in the Japanese press, bringing her personal fame, and beyond that, exporting Houdong Cat Village's fame to people beyond Taiwan's shores.

In the wake of her success in Japan, she published a book, Houdong Cat Talk, in which she introduced the "four kings" in detail. Black Nose, much beloved on account of his pleasant disposition, unfortunately died from an injury caused by a fish bone before the book was published. The Cat Lovers Society and the community residents decided to honor him by erecting a statue.

Bringers of fortune

Just what kind of wealth can one cat create? Consider the case of Tama, the famous eight-year-old calico cat that was appointed stationmaster of Kishi Station on the Kishigawa Line in Wakayama, Japan. Her fans flock in from miles away, bringing in a yearly total of ¥1.2 billion. You've seen the cat figurines in the stores that beckon in wealth? Well, this one broke the mold.

Love is the reason behind it all, though. People love dogs, cats, and furry things because they reinforce our connection to nature.

"However human beings treat the cats, the cats will reciprocate in turn. If you treat someone with kindness, even if they bear you some ill will, they're more likely keep it bottled up. If you treat the cats with affection, they will respond with love. Of course, sometimes people pretend to be affectionate in order to gain an advantage, but it is often the case that, after a while, the act becomes real," says Mrs. Kitty.

As time passes, though she feels the pressure of all the work she's undertaken, she's noticing a gradual change in the cats. People's friendly treatment has brought out a more personable side in them. Moreover, the cleanup efforts of the volunteers have won over many previously indifferent residents who have taken an interest in touching up their dilapidated homes.

Not everyone in Guangfu has welcomed the changes that are unfolding gradually but forcefully. There are still plenty of squalid vistas, and the newly elected borough chief has made it clear that he wants "nothing to do with this cat business." Then there are the pervasive rumors of mishandling of the kitty donation box, and the elderly man who is convinced that the bites on his grandson's feet are the work of pests that have profited all too well from the large cat population.

There's also the problem of abandoned cats. Mrs. Kitty monitors from afar the events in Cat Village via surveillance equipment, and just recently they caught a father attempting to dispose of his son's pet cat by dumping him in Guangfu.

The Houdong Cat Lovers Society has achieved a consensus that the Houdong locals are not to be treated as pawns, and their dirty laundry is not be aired, lest the community feel slighted and their image compromised. "We told the residents that cats really are fleabags, and that cleared up a lot of misgivings right then and there. We do our best to accentuate the positive and let it trump all the criticism and recrimination. We have to be careful about the purity of our motives-the residents aren't blind, after all-they can see that whether or not our actions are genuine," says Mrs. Kitty.

All creatures great and small

"We want Taiwan to have a place like Greece, where cats can live a carefree existence, where they needn't panic at the slightest approach of a human being. Where they can sunbathe in the day and roam about at night. I thought it would take years for such a place to emerge; who would have thought that Houdong would pave the way." These words are taken from a blog entitled "Mythic Ruins."

Houdong is leading the way by becoming a unique "cat village" tourist destination. Unlike the organic processes that gave rise to Milos Island in Greece and Japan's Tashirojima, the Houdong phenomenon was born gradually out of the naive goodwill of the volunteers and the kindly tolerance of the locals-the kind of grassroots development that no government planning can possibly bring about.

In Mrs. Kitty's broad experience as a cat photographer, there isn't a place in Taiwan-or anywhere else in the world, for that matter-that rivals Houdong in terms of the feline temperament. The cats have experienced such kindness that they gladly return it to human visitors. They seem extraordinarily poised and calm, to the point that administering vaccinations, ordinarily an odious task, is an absurdly easy one. In the winter, a cat or two will press up against a human visitor for warmth. Amidst the bustle of human traffic, they'll sprawl themselves out belly-up on the stairs and drift off into contented snores.

The tourist atmosphere is a uniquely friendly one. Cats, it turns out, are great at breaking down barriers between people. Oftentimes tourists will begin chatting with one another, and before long, it seems as though they've known each other a lifetime.

It is a place rich in life lessons. Observing the interaction of the cats, their lives and deaths, makes us more sensitive to the suffering of the less fortunate living amongst us.

Indeed, India's great sage Gandhi once said: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Based on how visitors treat the cats, Mrs. Kitty is convinced that Taiwan is a place of elevated morals whose citizens have the utmost respect for life, and that the spate of animal torture cases some years back was an anomaly.

Though small, Houdong could be described as a microcosm of Taiwanese society as a whole. But Houdong's experience would be impossible to duplicate elsewhere. To achieve a marketing tour de force in a small town requires that they uncover that which sets them apart from everyone else.

Houdong has taken the first steps towards Mrs. Kitty's vision of a cat theme park, replete with a cat shrine where visitors can pay their respects to the feline spiritual guardians, a street with vendors selling treats-not the usual Taiwanese fare of fried chicken, oyster pancakes and noodles, but dorayaki, the red-bean pancake that was the fatal weakness of Japan's most famous cartoon cat, Doraemon, which would better underscore the cat connection. She hopes that locals lead the way-it wouldn't be fair for outsiders to muscle their way in and steal the profits away from deserving longtime residents.

One woman and her supporters have changed the face of a small village, inspiring it to achieve great things. This woman's love for the land and its inhabitants, both human and feline, has launched a great saga of service and dedication that will continue to unfold.



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文‧蘇惠昭 圖‧莊坤儒









四年過去,2011年4月中旬,平常的一天,北台灣從漫長的冬天甦醒,猴硐特有的稀有鐘萼木花初開,貓夫人背著Pentax 645D來到猴硐。
































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文・蘇惠昭 写真・荘坤儒









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