Season 1
From the Travel Journal: Taipei: This Tiny Taiwanese Cat Village Just Might Hold the Blueprint to a Different Future

Does the secret to turning crisis into catharsis rest with a village full of cats?

by DOMINIQUE FERRARI

INTRODUCTION

The world is in a state of tremendous flux and upheaval right now. Between a global pandemic, the catastrophic economic crisis it has created (or exacerbated), and the strain it has put on every part of our system, our communities, and ourselves — it’s almost too much to comprehend.

But as we feel systems and economies buckle, as we see people and groups pushed to the limit, and as we feel the fabric that is supposed to hold our society together rapidly fray — it’s important to look for stories of survival. Stories where people or communities figured it out. Where they unlocked some secret sauce that put Humpty Dumpty together again — or, better yet, that tossed the old, tired nursery rhyme to the curb and found a new and improved story altogether. In great tragedy, there is also great opportunity. Someone will always harness it — so how do we harness this moment of crisis for the betterment of all? If you look for them, there are stories of resilience everywhere.

And we found one such story in the north of Taiwan. And it involves cats.

Yes, cats. 

PART I

It is a universal truth of modern life that cats rule. You can love them, you can fear them, but you must respect them. There are websites dedicated to them, a growing assortment of cat cafes and bars popping up around the world, and an entire Netflix documentary/cautionary tale about those who would dare to ‘eff with them. And it’s not just the Big Cat Lobby pushing this narrative. The primacy of cats has literally been proven by science. When computer scientists at Google’s mysterious X Lab built an artificial brain with a neural network of 16,000 computer processors and one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, one guess what it quickly learned to recognize and start to search for.

Even artificial intelligence is obsessed with cats. 

And for the true cat lover, there is one place that rules them all. It’s a tiny mountain town in north Taiwan, just an hour east of Taipei called Houtong. If there is a cat lovers’ Mecca, this is it. Houtong is an entire village dedicated to the celebration of its stray cats. There are hundreds of them and the entire town revolves around them. And on the surface — that’s all it is; a town with a lot of stray, but-oh-so-Instagrammable cats.

But what if, baked into this cat village is a blueprint for something much bigger? A blueprint for how, like the cats of Houtong themselves, an entire community can tap into another one of its 9 lives and land on its feet no matter where it falls from? That’s what we were out to discover. 

To get to Houtong will cost you just about $2USD and an hour on a train from Taipei. And when you arrive, have your camera ready.

There are cat murals everywhere. Cat statues to get your worship on. Cat themed road signs. Cat benches to sit on as you wait for your new best friend to approach and brush against your shins. There is a giant pedestrian bridge built in the shape of a dog. JUST KIDDING! It’s a cat! There are a plethora of cat cafes and gift shops carrying all manner of kitty-themed kitsch. There are rows of cat houses that look like tiny, posh Cat Craftsmans. 

And of course — there’s the main event — the cats! 

In Houtong, cats live the life. They lounge, stretch, and lounge some more wherever they please. There are feeding stations throughout the village. Platforms built everywhere — just for them — to jump onto and/or to slooowly push things off of. It’s basically Furvana.

And the story of how this cat haven came to be is just as remarkable as the cats themselves. 

PART II

In the beginning, Houtong was called Kau-tong which translates to “monkey cave”; aptly named because there was, in fact, a cave inhabited by wild monkeys in its earliest days. The monkeys left a long time ago, and by the turn of the 20th century, Houtong had become a burgeoning mining village. This was during the 50-year period when Japan ruled Taiwan, from 1895 to 1945. They built a railway to Houtong, which put it on the map, and it quickly became one of the most prosperous coal-mining areas in all of Taiwan. During its peak, the area produced around 220,000 tons of coal per year. And as more mines and factories popped up, people migrated to the once-small Houtong until, at its apex, more than 6,000 people called this quaint mountain village home. Houtong was making it. But it wasn’t meant to last.

As plenty of still proud but suffering pockets in the United States know only too well, the days of coal were numbered. By the 1990s, coal had begun its steep decline. And as the factories and mines of Houtong shuttered, its population declined as well. The younger generation began to leave the dying village in search of better jobs and opportunities, and the population quickly shrank, until only about 100 residents remained. The mines were boarded up. The shops closed. The town infrastructure began to fall into disrepair.

By all accounts, Houtong should have gone the way of those cave monkeys. Their town was a shuttered and decaying shell of its former glory — just an obscure stop on the railway that most people didn’t even notice anymore. A forgotten place. 

But then something happened. Whether by chance or by design, as Houtong’s once vibrant human population left, cats began to appear and take their place. Some of them were undoubtedly family pets who were left behind or escaped as people left town. But they multiplied. And over time, their ranks grew until by 2008, there were more cats in Houtong than people.

Now, in most towns, stray cats are an obvious sign of neglect. Just like the Taiwanese forest reclaiming the abandoned mine sites, Houtong’s stray cats were just another reminder that this place was no longer a place for people — it was a feral place.

However, as I said before, if life in this modern world has taught us anything — it is the universal truth that cats rule. And the sooner we all learn to accept that fact, the better. And luckily for Houtong, they were about to get some help in that department in the form of a photographer who would shake things up.

PART III.

Jian Pei Ling, a local renowned Taiwanese cat photographer (yes, renowned cat photographers exist), wanted to take pictures of Houtong’s stray cats. As she clicked away, she was taken with them, but she was also worried. Who was caring for them? Who was feeding them? And here, Jian Pei Ling — who goes by the professional name Mrs. Kitty (or Cat Lady, depending on how you feel about Google Translate) — had some street cred. Not only was she a renowned cat photographer, her husband was a veterinarian who went by the name Dr. Cat. If you believe in fate, then it had sent the perfect person to Houtong. 

Jian Pei Ling approached some of the people in the village. She was hoping that they might be open to setting up some kind of organization to make sure the cats were fed and received the medical care they needed. Now, in a village with more cats than people and in which many of its residents were suffering economically — it was a tall order to take care of yet another thing. To feed a stray, feral cat when they themselves may struggle to put food on the table. But the locals decided to do just that. Along with Jian Pei Ling, they put together a small team of vets and volunteers to look after the cats of Houtong, including feeding, spaying and neutering, and implanting microchips.   

And that was the moment everything changed. 

As the locals cared for the cats, Jian Pei Ling began to post pictures of the cats of Houtong. And soon, word began to spread about this tiny mountain village of cats. Sadly, some people even began to drive their own unwanted cats to the town to abandon them — causing the stray cat population to grow even larger. 

But soon someone else started to show up — visitors. 

It was a trickle at first — but any visitor was probably enough to grab attention in Houtong. Word had spread about this quaint mountain village that was filled with stray — but happy — cats. If Netflix has taught us what fate awaits those who would eff with cats, Houtong teaches us how fate smiles on those who care for them. 

As more and more visitors began stepping off the train in Houtong to see this “cat village” for themselves, residents realized that they were being handed a second chance. 

They quickly embraced and welcomed this interest from outsiders. They organized and began putting up cat-themed markers and artwork around the city — road signs and murals. They began selling cat swag in their few shops. As more visitors arrived, more shops began popping up. And over the years, that trickle of visitors turned into a flood. 

Veins of coal had once fed the beating heart of Houtong. When they dried up, it seemed the village’s dreams and hopes had dried up with them. But then, suddenly, like some ninja cat pouncing out of nowhere — a new lifeblood had emerged. And the residents of Houtong — who had made room in their town for hundreds of stray cats — were now making room for throngs of visitors captivated by their home. 

By most accounts, almost a million people visited Houtong last year alone. 

The businesses are open again. The decaying train station was rebuilt — complete with an amazing cat-shaped pedestrian bridge to allow the tourists and, of course, the cats to cross the tracks safely. The 21st century phenomenon of the viral cat gave the dying 20th century town of Houtong a new future. And the people of Houtong were organized and adaptable enough to seize it.  

Houtong teaches us that when the sun sets on one dream — it’s time to find a new one, and you never know what shape it might come in. Sometimes, it’s a cat-shaped one. 

As many of our communities fracture, as our economies shift and quake beneath our feet, and as so many of us find ourselves staring at a very uncertain future, there’s no magic, silver bullet for how we rebuild what has been lost or how to rescue towns and communities who feel — and maybe are — abandoned. But maybe Houtong serves as a blueprint for how a place can change its story and survive — and even help other creatures in the process.

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.