Brand mew photo series on Hong Kong’s market cats

One year after the success of his photo book on Hong Kong’s shop cats, Marcel Heijnen is back with the second instalment of his Chinese Whiskers series, this time focusing the lens on our feline friends in Hong Kong’s markets.

Heijnen’s photos of Hong Kong’s market cats were originally going to be featured in his book on shop cats. After realising he had “too much material”, the writer he was working with on the shop cats book convinced him to do a separate book on the city’s market cats.

The idea gave Heijnen paws for thought. “I’m glad I did [it],” he said. “It’s got a different feel to it.”

Heijnen, who just came back from a trip to the Netherlands when he sat down with Coconuts Hong Kong, said he showed some copies of the new book to his friends. He said: “To them it was more Hong Kong than the shop cats, and I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to the ‘shop cats’ kind of level.

“It’s more raw, it’s more textured, it’s more dirty, so it has maybe a little bit more of an exotic feel to people who don’t know Hong Kong.”

Unlike his last book – where the majority of the cats featured lived in shops on Hong Kong Island, namely around Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun – Heijnen’s next instalment will mainly features cats from the markets of Kowloon and the New Territories.

Like their shop cat counterparts, the market cats of Hong Kong are used for the same purposes – to protect the shop’s goods by warding off pests.

However unlike his last book, the moggy models in Heijnen’s new book and the environments they inhabit are a bit dirtier, grittier, busier, and in some cases have “a feeling of desolation”.

“The markets are more chaotic and less clean than the shops. Boxes, crates, grimy walls, forklifts, pallets. More human activity and perhaps a bit less of a connection between the owner and the cat. Markets are busy places in which fresh goods move rapidly. They make for more dynamic subject matter.”

Some of the feline subjects of Heijnen’s new book were also harder to photograph, from alley cats that would sit at the back of wet markets to strays that would go into the market after-hours to hunt for scraps of food.

During his photo walks, Heijnen noted that with market cats, things were “a little bit more transient” compared to shop cats.

He explained: “With these cats they might leave [the shops] or come back, they might get killed, they might get sick, and maybe [the stall owners] take them to a vet, there’s a little bit of a difference. In the shops they’re a little bit more revered, but in the markets they’re more like a tool.”

But like the last book, the backdrop of each photograph in the new book represents a portrait of Hong Kong’s culture. Heijnen’s favorite photo from the new book features a black cat sitting on piles of plastic ties used to tie bamboo scaffolding together.

Heijnen explains that photo, taken in Sham Shui Po, was a happy accident and that the original model was a sleepy brown cat. “I was kinda waiting for the brown cat to wake up, it was a large area, and suddenly this black cat shows up, first he sits on the bamboo and suddenly he jumps onto it.”

So what next for Heijnen? The Dutch photographer started photographing shop cats in China, and also released a calendar of Hong Kong’s garage dogs, quite appropriate for 2018, which is the year of the dog.

“It’s an interesting thing because also the dog has a function, it’s a guard dog very often in the garage because they have valuable stuff, and it’s a very different atmosphere from the shops and the markets that I photographed cats in. But it’s equally Hong Kong.”

But will he make a book out of it? Heijnen said: “It’s a fun project and I’ll keep doing it until I have enough to actually do a book.”

The purr-fect Christmas stocking filler for cat-loving friends and family members. There will be a book launch and exhibition opening at G.O.D. PMQ in Sheung Wan at 6pm on Wednesday, Nov 15. The exhibition will run until Tuesday, Nov 21. There will also be an exhibition at 9 Yu Lok Lane in Sai Ying Pun on Thursday, Nov 30.

All photos by Marcel Heijnen, courtesy of Marcel Heijnen.

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