A plump, tortoiseshell cat lounges in a shaft of sunlight where she is patted, prodded and all round mollycoddled by tourist after tourist. Her indifference to adoration is one cultivated by excess attention. After all, she is the reason tens of thousands of tourists a year come to Houtong (猴硐), Taiwan.
She is just one of more than 150 cats that have claimed the tiny mountainside village of Houtong as their own after the decommissioning of the Japanese colonial-era booming coal mine the town was created to support.
“Houtong” roughly translates to “monkey cave” – an auspicious moniker for early 20th Century pioneer miners who hoped not to face the often-fatal challenge of water gushing into the deep coal mining pits.
When the out-of-the-way mine was decommissioned in 1990, the picturesque sub-tropical rainforest valley in which the town is nestled was all but deserted.
The dramatic mountain landscape is dotted with graveyards of long-gone industrial prosperity.
“Perfect for cats,” my extremely enthusiastic, feline-friendly tour guide tells me. “No cars here or motorbikes, but all the buildings from the mine. The cats then come here because it is safe for them.”
The town is surrounded by the mist-topped verdant mountains evoked for the island Portuguese explorers the name “Beautiful Island”. Sun-dappled and quiet, nature has reclaimed what industry stole from it in this valley.
And so in the tens then tens of tens, the cat population of Houtong swelled.
The cats are gregarious and attention-loving– unperturbed by humans petting them, holding them, photographing them. In fact, I wouldn’t be too far off if I said some of the cats had even learnt how to pose – bending and arching for cameras and looking directly into lens thrust into their faces.
The cats can be seen wandering the crooked roads of the town alone, or nestled into a sunny spot in groups of four or five. There are no cat fights, residents say, despite strays constantly coming to join the community.
After the cats came, a small community of savvy animal enthusiasts followed suit, primarily to care for the cat population but simultaneously to reap the rewards of Taiwan’s burgeoning tourist trade.
“Every cat has a name and all the residents here know each cat by name,” my guide says softly in shy English.
Cat-themed restaurants now line the narrow streets of Houtong, serving assorted feline-themed delicacies including Taiwan’s famed national food – the pineapple cake – in the shape of a cat face, of course.
The local government latched on to the popularity of the sleepy town, and instead of trying to stem the ever-growing number of strays gravitating to the area, has sought to implement measures to boost and protect the pawed population.
A coal transport railway line through the centre of the village is now used to service high-speed, cross-island trains. But fast trains and overly trusting kitties were never the best of bedfellows.
So the local government has repatched a rickety wooden pedestrian flyover to the tune of about U.S. $600,000. The result – a world first overpass designed especially for cats.
The 60-metre overpass, which can accommodate human foot traffic as well, is dotted with cat scratching poles, high perching ledges and an assortment of food and drink bowls. My tour guide tells me the cat overpass was built especially with kittens’ playtime in mind featuring lots of low to the ground nooks and crannies for kittens to play in.
The overpass, officially opened in May this year, is itself designed to resemble a stretched-out cat, with two pointed ears at one end and a slinky tail at the other.
Here cats literally lap up the adoration poured on them by tourists who, armed with cameras and cat food, become, as most humans do around cats, their inadvertent slaves.
Houtong’s cats rarely bleat; food is always nearby. I watched one excited teenage couple gently place a small pile of kitty food in front of a sprawled ginger cat. The cat all but rolled its eyes. The kids got the hint and placed a second pile of kitty food directly under the mouth of the cat,who then happily consumed its snack.
For more information on Houtong and the cats, check out this article here.
To actually go check it out for yourself, just hop on any train headed from Taipei towards the East coast. It’s the 11th stop from Taipei Main, or one stop after Ruifang Station. Check it out on the map above!