As you pull up into the Houtong Train Station, an hour north of Taipei City in Taiwan, a huge rattan sculpture of a cat head with beady eyes welcomes you to this “Cat Village”, where approximately 100 stray but friendly cats roam the streets freely. Houtong Cat Village was once a sorry victim of the dying mining industry, whose population was a mere 100. In 2008, a local cat lover organized a team of volunteers to clean Houtong’s streets to provide the numerous abandoned cats in the area with a better home. Over time, word of this peculiar community spread to bloggers, reporters and photographers, and the Houtong Cat Village was born.
Accustomed to living around people, these cats do not flinch when visitors pat and squeeze them. Instead, Houtong cats adore the attention and are more than happy to pose for photographs. The level of interaction between visitors and cats is part of what makes visiting this village so enriching.
Although the cats wander around the village, they are fed and looked after by volunteers who live in the town. These cat lovers make sure that the cats are clean and healthy and that their habitat is kept lush and pristine.
In Chinese culture, cats are known to bring good luck, and this has certainly been the case at Houtong. In the 1970s, Houtong was a prosperous gold and coal mining city. However, once the gold mines ran dry, and cheaper coal became available elsewhere, Houtong met a massive decline, which ran its population down to fewer than 100 — or 30 families. However, once this town became known for its friendly cats, Houtong has become a popular tourist destination.
Local residents have also capitalized on their “Cat Village” by setting up shop houses selling anything from paintings and postcards of cats, to cat-shaped pillows and stuffed animals. Cat-themed coffee houses and bakeries are abundant as well. Giant-sized Hello Kitty and Pusheen toys are among the most bizarre. Everywhere you look, laughing cats, smiling cats and smirking cats are engraved on cups and tote bags. Rings, scrunchies and even clothes pins are decorated with cat heads. Traditional good-luck white porcelain cats with arms that bob up and down are also sold in Houtong.
One cat-themed coffee shop has a particularly symbolic location inside a coal mining museum. While cats laze on the floors, the museum serves as a subtle reminder of Houtong’s history from the 1850s to its heyday in the 1970s. Looking around the cat village, remnants of Houtong’s coal mining past can still be found, especially in the rusty and dilapidated machinery, as well as its abandoned railway tracks.
Houtong Cat Village manages to not only provide a lovely home for these cute creatures but by doing so, it has also raised awareness of the history of what was once one of Taiwan’s most prosperous coal mining towns.