New York City is the home of the esteemed bodega cat. These virtuous felines spend their time prowling the aisles of corner convenience stores filled with chips, bottles of water and $1 rolls of toilet paper.
It also happens that in Hong Kong, a bunch of distant kitty cousins take on a similar role. They’re called shop cats and you’ll find them holding court among more exotic-sounding local goods such as dried lizards. They’ve also become the subject of Hong Kong Shop Cats, a new book by the Dutch photographer Marcel Heijnen.
Let’s get up to speed with these East Asian feline retail stars: We interviewed Heijnen to ask about these retail cats of the Far East.
What inspired the Hong Kong Shop Cats project?
Marcel Heijnen: Pure serendipity. When I moved back to Hong Kong from Singapore at the end of 2015, I rented an apartment in the Sai Ying Pun district. It’s an area that is rapidly gentrifying with new cafes and galleries coming up left, right and center, but it’s still rooted in tradition as well — there’s loads of dried seafood shops and traditional Chinese medicine halls. I noticed a cat sitting on the counter of one of those stores and photographed it with my iPhone.
Then [I noticed] another and another. Once I posted a few of these pics on Facebook, I got quite a bit of response on them, most significantly from a lady who works for AsiaOne, the publisher of my first photo book, Residue. She said, “This should be your next photo book project.”
This turned out to be a good idea — especially because there are so many cats in shops in Hong Kong. It’s really part of a tradition. I am a cat person, but at the time of moving to Hong Kong I was cat-less and this is probably why I was so happy spotting cats in the shops in my neighborhood.
How would you characterize the relationship between the cats and the shop owners?
It’s a very sweet symbiotic relationship, I think. Most of the owners really love their cats, and they mean more to them than just being a mouse repellent — they’re true companions.
On a day-to-day basis, what’s life like for a shop cat in Hong Kong?
Eat, sleep, groom, play, sleep again — like most domestic cats. The cats in Hong Kong shops are there because their smell keeps the mice away. So they’ve got a great deal as they don’t actually need to go chasing and catching mice — their presence in enough. They can just sit around while the humans around them do all the work. Go figure!
How do most of the shop cats react to customers? Are they generally friendly?
These cats are all very Zen and are used to busyness around them, like people carrying boxes in and out of the shop. So they are generally very friendly to customers and often enjoy the attention and a bit of petting.
What are some of the most exotic foods and goods you’ve seen stocked in shops in Hong Kong?
Lizards, which are supposed to be ground up for medicinal purposes. Then there’s deer — a stuffed deer in a shop is an indication that the shops sell deer products, also for medicinal purposes. And of course, the terrible shark fins …
Finally, do you have any cats yourself?
Yup, I have a little kitten again called Alley. She was found on New Year’s Eve and only about two weeks old. She’s beautiful and a lot of fun.