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!