When you arrive via train to the little Taiwanese village of Houtong, you will be greeted by a sign emblazoned with an odd bedfellows picture of a monkey, a miner, and a cat standing on a bridge. The village was originally called Hou Dong, which literally translates to “monkey cave,” in honor of a troupe of wild monkeys once inhabiting a nearby cave. The miner represents the once all-important coal mining industry that dominated the local economy until the 1970s. The cat represents the new saving-grace cat-based economy that has revitalized this small community after the decline of the coal industry. And the bridge is what connects Houtong by train to the rest of the world.
During its most prosperous decades, Houtong mines produced about 220,000 tons of coal, the biggest yield of coal in a single area in Taiwan. Such abundant coal resources beckoned people to migrate to Houtong, and at its peak, the community boasted 6,000 residents. But then demand for coal began to dwindle and the economy started to waver. As always the story, the young people left town to find opportunities elsewhere – and sadly many animals, especially cats, were left behind. By the 1990s only a few hundred older residents, along with an odd assortment of abandoned pets, were left in this remote little village.
When all appeared to be lost and with no hope for the future, life in Houtong took an unexpected turn. Taiwanese cat lover and photographer, Chien Pei-ling, decided it was the community’s responsibility to take care of the abandoned cats and organized a team of volunteers to provide for the village felines. Pei-ling created a blog, posted photos and videos of the cats online and asked for help from the outside world. The response was overwhelming (although not surprising as we all know now that the internet loves cats) and help came in not only for the cats, but in the end for the people of Houtong.
With the blog and the constant stream of cute cat photos from Houtong, people began taking the historic railway to the village and hanging out with the cats. More raves on more blogs, more great cat photos and soon Houtong became a mecca for cat lovers and photographers. Now, the funky old mining town centers around the 100 plus kitties that roam the streets as local heroes — not to mention the thousands of tourists that now come every weekend!
To capitalize on the constant throng of cat-loving visitors, the entrepreneurial villagers started baking and offering pineapple cakes in the shape of cats, as well as selling a creative array of cat-themed trinkets. Furthermore, the enthusiasm for all things kitty-cat resulted in a cat-themed footbridge (ears at one end, tail at the other) as well as cat road signs, whimsical cat murals and charming little wooden cat houses, where the felines can seek refuge in inclement weather. The footbridge also now has a royal cat walk for the cats to come and greet the trains which the cats now know come loaded with visitors bearing gifts of fish and rice.
Pei-ling is delighted with how one little community has been saved by being compassionate: “In the decline and fall of this remote village, we have built up a model of peaceful relationship between people and animals to show the bright side of human beings. We kindly treat these little animals with an attitude of respect for life. Our love for animals has turned the street cats into a tourist resource. This is a positive direction of a virtuous cycle, and will encourage more people to love cats and animals.”
I cannot help but reflect how this wonderful story from Houtong has been a win-win for everyone — the cats, the villagers, the tourists and Pei-ling, who later published a book of her Houtong cat photos and then won first prize at a photo competition held on the Japanese Island of Tashiro-jima, where cats are also treasured. I love the fact that a random act of kindness, combined with human ingenuity, has created happiness and joy for so many.