“Look! (It’s) Over there!”, I heard an excited voice behind me. It was a boy and he kept pointing her finger to a nearby bush. A few seconds later, a black-white shape leapt out. Its yellow eyes seemed to notice us but showed no interest to interact. After a while, the figure gently walked away, swinging its tail back and forth. That was my first encounter with the citizen of Houtong, a place that is often dubbed as the Cat Village.
Tucked in the forested mountains of Ruifang District (35 kilometres from Taipei City), Houtong ( 猴硐) is a former coal-mining village. After the mining’s pits closed down in the 1990s, the place was largely abandoned, with only a dozen of households left behind. But things started to change in 2008 when local cat lover Jian Peilling posted photos of the villager’s efforts to take care of stray cats on social media. Her pictures went viral and the village received a lot of support from cat lovers from all over Taiwan.
Within years, the ghost town of Houtong has reinvented itself as a lively cat village. Visitors from far and wide flock here to see a quirky village where nearly everything is cat-related, from feline theme souvenirs, kitty-shaped desserts to a cat-inspired gallery. Even the bridge leading to the village is also cat-friendly, fully equipped with climbing steps and perch platforms. Though these facilities sound like tourist traps, they bring the much-needed money to the villagers and the cat population.
Cat! Cat! A lot of cats!
The star attraction, however, is still our four-legged friends. It’s estimated that Houtong is now home to more than 200 cats; roughly double that of the human population. From black, white, ginger to tortoiseshell, there are cats of every kind. Some are pretty shy, while others are friendly and don’t mind if you pet them. The cats can be found roaming all over the village: hiding in the bushes, jumping off roofs, sleeping over the bannisters or idling by the riverside. They get fed by villagers, and often, by the public. But visitors are encouraged not to do so because overfeeding will have negative impacts on the cat’s health. Additionally, a small team of veterinarians voluntarily look after the cats by administering vaccinations and sterilisation.
But this sanctuary for stray cats also has a downside. As its popularity grows, Houtong now has to face a new threat posed by many irresponsible pet owners. These people come here to discard cats that they no longer want. Some of these castoffs are even ill and can infect the whole cat population. Although there is a fine of up to 150,000 NT$ (5000$), it hardly has a deterrent effect. In my opinion, Houtong should be a place where visitors learn to value animals, not a place to abandon them.
- Houtong Cat Village is easily accessible by local trains from Taipei Main Station. Just take Line 801 towards Su’ao (Yilan) and get off at Houtong. The trip takes less than one hour. Please note that some journeys require a brief transfer at Ruifang Station.
- As of 2019, you can pay for the entire trip with the EasyCard – an add-valued smartcard that can be used in most of Taiwan’s public transportation system.
- Ruifang Station is the gateway to the famous mountain town of Jiufen. That’s why many people (including myself) combine these two destinations on a day trip.