Any seasoned Hongkonger is no doubt familiar with the sight of the friendly felines occupying various businesses throughout the city’s districts. Some, like Brother Cream, are more famous than others. Some do tricks, and others are content to nap the day away.
Ever since he moved to Hong Kong, Dutch photographer Marcel Heijnen says he’s been drawn to these “photogenic mouse-hunters”. And really, who can blame him? (Certainly not us, as anyone who follows us on Instagram can testify.)
Earlier this year, Heijnen started @chinesewhiskers (hats off, we love a good pun), his picture purr-fect Instagram account documenting these “shop cats”, “the little emperors of their retail kingdoms”.
“While the cats are undoubtedly the furry celebrities of his photographs, each shot delivers an insightful context of Hong Kong’s traditional trades. From dried fish and rice to paper offerings, the backdrop of each shot presents a portrait of Hong Kong’s local culture.”
Over time, the meow-vellous moggies have become essential to the businesses and families of the shops they (deign to) inhabit.
A lucky cat, sitting next to a lucky cat.
Whether it’s through the cats’ ability to drive away pests, to buoy their owners’ spirits, or even attract animal-loving customers to their shops, their whiskery wiles have won them a reputation as lucky charms.
This angelic-looking creature makes a regular fan look like a halo.
Some owners deliberately sought their cats for their hunting skills, while others found their shops “adopted” by cats who simply turned up and made themselves at home.
Many of these photos were taken in the traditional Chinese shops dotted around Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun.
“Cleaning in progress”? Quite right.
Of the furry phenomenon, Heijnen writes, “In most modern cities there will be all kinds of rules and regulations against cats in shops. Not in Hong Kong, and I’m grateful for that.”
In Hong Kong, this “wonderful symbiotic relationship between human and feline”, borne out of a need for “mice-catching and companionship”, harks back to the reason cats were domesticated in the first place, says the photographer.
This fur-ocious feline is all business.
“And yes, it’s about the cats. But it kind of isn’t at the same time. It’s just as much about the context; these chaotic-yet-organically-organised traditional Chinese shops that form beautiful photogenic subjects in their own right. Places in which time seems to have stood still, devoid of branding and all the other modern-day retail trickery which we’ve grown accustomed to.”
The popularity of the series has prompted Heijnen to publish a book, which will be available later this year. “Hong Kong Shop Cats” will consist of Heijnen’s photographs, an introduction and cat stories by Catharine Nicol, haikus by Ian Row, and calligraphy by old master Taiyuan Sensan.
The book will be launched at ZZHK gallery in Sheung Wan on Friday, Dec. 9, where we’re sure lots of cat-loving Coconauts will pick up a copy or two in time for Christmas. Prints and books will be available from the Blue Lotus Gallery from Monday, Dec. 12.
Marcel Heijnen is a photographer, designer and musician. Originally from the Netherlands, he has called Asia his home since 1992. He works, often concurrently, on a number of photo series, capturing vastly different aspects of life in Asia. This is his second book, and the first in the Chinese Whisker series. Check out more of his work here.
All photos by Marcel Heijnen, courtesy of Blue Lotus Gallery, Hong Kong.
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