There is a theme of themes in Taiwan. Shopping areas are organized by theme, and restaurants are known by their brand. You can find numerous electronics shops and a five-story building dedicated to computers, cameras, cell phones, videogames, and their respective accessories on Bade Road. For everything related to cameras, Boai Road has been the popular location for over forty years. But if you’re looking for a professional photographer instead, then the streets around Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall offer many options.
The themes don’t stop here—the busiest MRT stations in Taipei all have their own art installations, galleries, or murals designed by different artists. Even different cities in Taiwan have their own local specialty, whether it is a specific dish like oyster pancakes or the regional dessert for which that region has been made famous (such as the cow tongue cookies in Yilan or the many peanut candies of Jinmen). Taiwan is a collage of different areas, districts, shops, restaurants, and historical sites that have developed unique defining characteristics and distinct identities.
There is a ubiquitous theme—found all over the island—that is quickly gaining momentum and manifesting itself in new ways. With the popularized Sanrio character Hello Kitty and the traditional beckoning lucky cats (known as maneki–neko in Japanese) found in local establishments and private homes, cat iconography fills the streets of Taiwan. Realistic, cartoonish, and traditional art styles are used in branding, advertising, and public messages.
So it’s no wonder that the essence of these trends, the many cats that occupy Taiwan, are just as important to its culture. Locals and tourists alike, people seem to really love cats—they are not afraid to feed them, pet them, and take pictures with them when they’re spotted roaming the streets.
Despite the high regard that the animals enjoy, feral cats remain a problem in the country. Especially in Taipei, it is difficult for many residents to adopt animals, given the long work hours and limited housing space. In addition to volunteering with local animal rights campaigns, many individuals have found other ways to help the animals they consider so beautiful and auspicious. More and more local businesses donate proceeds to causes like the Taiwan branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which aims to educate the public on animal welfare, investigate animal cruelty, find new homes for stray animals, and improve animal rights legislation.
Different people and organizations in Taiwan address this issue in a variety of ways. When some commit to adopting a pet, they will bring their pet to work with them. Groups and business owners sometimes take this a step further by actually adopting a stray cat, getting it fixed, and housing it in their cafés. In this instance, the cat not only becomes a symbol of the business, but can also add to the attraction or appeal of the restaurant. Often, these same businesses pride themselves on the support they offer to animal welfare organizations. Some restaurants offer vegan and vegetarian menus and may also help advertise for specific campaigns and share information about other stray-friendly or animal-rights-oriented businesses.
In addition, because cats are widely appreciated in Taiwan and because they are associated with good luck, felines often find themselves integrated into local business models. Of course, cat icons find themselves just about everywhere in Taiwan from street signs to phone charms, but there are even restaurants that focus specifically on cats as the center of interest and activity. Typically housing more than two feline friends, these places are decorated with charming cat-centric images and themed menus. Establishments such as these encourage their patrons to interact with the cats and give them plenty of attention. These cat cafes have become so popular in recent years that blogs and even the pages of travel books are filled with information, guides, and reviews on the hottest spots.
Cat cafes help ordinary people who cannot keep a pet of their own—for reasons associated with living in a large metropolitan city—interact with these animals, which serves to increase the respect and reputation of these creatures. Yet for people seeking only to play with cats, there is a different type of cat café. These establishments do not serve food or drink, but allow you to come, relax, and enjoy the presence of their resident cats. Some places use a model like this to help stray cats find homes. Visitors can spend hours playing with the cats, with a variety of available toys. Patrons can also read books about how to care for cats, and interested parties can even choose to adopt them.
The world’s first cat café was said to have been opened in Taiwan in 1998, and since then this model has inspired entrepreneurs in neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea to open their own. More recently, this movement has influenced the United States, with the first U.S. cat café opening in San Francisco in the summer of 2014.
The most impressive manifestation of cat culture in Taiwan emerged in an old mining community called Houtong. Before the 1970s, Houtong was one of Taiwan’s largest coal mining sites. Unfortunately, Houtong was one of many areas devastated by the industrial decline of coal use and the rise of globalism, and the community fell on economic hard times. Until 2008, the village of Houtong was nearly forgotten. Known primarily for its train station on the route between Taipei and Yilan, it consisted of a small elderly population struggling to survive and a surprisingly large number of stray cats.
This all changed when a photographer documenting her travels through old towns made it to the village. Surprised at the number of cats on the streets and impressed by the struggle and apparent solidarity of the elderly inhabitants, she took actions to improve their quality of life. By bringing volunteers to educate the people in the village about caring for cats, she helped established the Cat Village of Houtong and was instrumental in inspiring a movement to clean up the streets and creating a better environment for the elderly and felines alike.
Since then, this community has become more widely known throughout Taiwan. Travelers, bloggers, photographers, writers, and reporters have helped to spread awareness of this charming village and draw more attention and support for the area from the local government. As the village attracted more visitors, it began to prosper once again, but this time thanks to their feline friends and their adoring fans.
Now the village of Houtong is filled with cat-themed snacks, shops, souvenirs, and hundreds of feline residents. The locals of Houtong take responsibility for the cats that live there and volunteer to ensure the cats are disease-free, well-fed, and properly cared for.
News of this unique community has spread all over the world, and it is a popular destination for cat-loving tourists. Of course, because of the significance and pervasiveness of cat iconography in the Taiwanese community, many of its patrons from all over Taiwan have visited more than once. In the years to come, hopefully Houtong will continue to serve as an example of the potential for a harmonious relationship between the stray or forgotten animals of a region and its people and be seen as a place where the rights of animals to live free from human exploitation and abuse is enshrined in its culture.