Takeaway

Houtong loves to purr

Thomas Manuel | Updated on November 09, 2018 Published on November 09, 2018

In cat country: Crowds of tourists arrive each week to gawk at, photograph and occasionally pet the furry felines   -  IMAGES: THOMAS MANUEL

Felines breathe life — and some attitude — into a forgotten mining town in Taiwan

Ascending the stairs from the railway station at Houtong, on the north-eastern edge of Taiwan, I am greeted by a cat. She sits perched on the railing, eyes closed diffidently to both my presence and the powdery rain. Petting her turns out to not be a good idea. She might be fat, furry and irresistible, but as my fingertips edge toward her ears, she bats them away, claws retracted. I take the point and meander away. Further up this sloping hillside is the rest of the cat village. It’s full of cat-themed cafés serving coffee and cakes in the shape of cats. The coffee menu sadly does not spell cappuccinos as ‘catpurrcinos’ — a missed opportunity. Mixed in with the cafés are shops selling feline-inspired merchandise, which I refer to in my head as ‘meowchandise’. Did I mention there are also lots of cats? They are found sitting around corners or under shades, basking in their smug rotundity, tolerating humanity in the way only cats can.

Somewhere past the cat village, a series of coal mines are scattered across the hillside. Once bustling, these pits have been quiet and abandoned since the mid-1990s. At their peak in the middle of the 20th century, the mines around this district would’ve supported tens of thousands of people. They would’ve come from all over, from nearby towns or even the capital, Taipei City, about 35 km to the west. The coal brought the railways, with the first track laid in the ’20s to transport coal to industries, which consumed it greedily. With the mines shutting down, as Taiwan found cheaper sources of coal, the workers slowly left. By 2000, Houtong and other similar villages were almost forgotten, left behind as the country charged toward a shinier future.

But it wasn’t just the mines that were in tumult in the ’90s. Like in India, that decade was a complicated time for Taiwan. After decades of student protests and huge demonstrations, the island nation held its first democratic elections in 1996. Prior to that, the country had been governed by a single party, the Kuomintang or KMT, which earlier used to rule over the Republic of China — a sovereign state encompassing parts of modern China and, for a while, Mongolia and Taiwan. In 1949, the KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek, along with millions of refugees, fled to Taiwan from the communist uprising of General Mao in mainland China. Kai-shek and the KMT operated from Taiwan as a government-in-exile. Mao, meanwhile, founded the People’s Republic of China and, since then, relations between the mainland and Taiwan (still officially called the Republic of China) have been complicated. Taiwan’s independence remains a fraught issue to this day.

Say meow! Cat-themed coffee and cakes are a staple in this erstwhile mining town   -  THOMAS MANUEL

 

 

Between the ’50s and the ’90s, despite an authoritarian regime, Taiwan industrialised rapidly and experienced an ‘economic miracle’. Its GDP grew year after year and, by the end of the 21st century, its per capita GDP was comparable to Western Europe and Japan, thanks mainly to a robust manufacturing and export infrastructure, and the low average wage. As the economy grew, however, wages rose and a lot of the manufacturing began to shift to mainland China. In response, the Taiwanese government began to invest heavily in technology, leading to the emergence of global electronics giants like Asus and Acer. The transformation was so immense that by 2008, more than 90 per cent of all netbooks, laptops and motherboards in the world were manufactured in Taiwan. Its focus on exports led to one of the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world. Now with the economy in a gradual decline, the country finds itself on the cusp of another reinvention.

And this is where the cats come into the story. It’s not clear when they first appeared in Houtong, but in 2008 an enthusiastic local started posting pictures of the cuddly kitties on the internet. The village’s care of its cats struck a chord and, soon, visitors and volunteers began to flock to the little town, using the same train line that once transported coal. Today, Houtong has fat cats by the dozens and crowds of tourists coming each week to gawk at, photograph and occasionally pet the felines as they loll around.

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Walking around Houtong, there are few residents in sight. Partly because there’s a drizzle and it’s only noon. Apart from the cashiers in the shops and the nice lady in the café where I munched on a cat cake, almost everyone I see is a tourist. But unlike in many other parts of the world, few of these tourists are Caucasian. Taiwan received more than 10 million tourists in 2016 and most of them came from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan or South Korea. This statistic was borne out throughout my travel across Taiwan, whether amidst the breathtaking natural splendour of the Taroko Gorge or in the bustling, colourful night markets of Taipei. Yes, there is the odd European in a raincoat or a Canadian with a backpack, but the overwhelming majority of the tourists here are East Asian.

Just as Houtong the old mining town reinvents itself as a cheerful cat village, Taiwan has gone from a country of factories to one of the most beautiful and accessible tourist destinations in the world. Instead of furry little cats, Taipei City leverages lush national parks, state-of-the-art museums and delicious street food. In 2016, Taipei became one of the 20 most visited cities in the world. And that’s not surprising, thanks to several tourist-friendly initiatives. Transportation within Taipei City, for instance, is exceptional. One smart card unlocks both the metro as well as the fleet of buses. Bus stops have maps of bus routes and often there are LED tickers displaying estimated arrival times. You can also look up the routes online and track the live location of the bus. This is true for most cities in Taiwan. The same card works equally well in rustic Tainan or jazzy Taichung.

Show the way: Cat sculptures and murals line the pathway to a café

 

The national parks have free entry and there’s a plethora of hiking trails of varying difficulty levels. A barely 20-minute bus ride from Taipei takes you to Yangmingshan (pronounced Yan-Min-Saan) National Park, for a weekend hike in the hills.

The museums with permanent exhibitions have audio guides in dozens of languages, from English to Indonesian. Taipei’s National Palace Museum, home to the famous Jade Cabbage and other priceless objects of art, even has a sign-language guide. In fact, most of the public infrastructure is disabled-friendly. And did I mention that everything is quite cheap? Also, crime isn’t a problem. You won’t be plagued by touts or anyone else trying to pull a fast one on you.

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The only negatives I can foresee for any potential Indian traveller is the lack of English usage outside Taipei City; and if you’re vegetarian, there aren’t many options. In general, East and Southeast Asia aren’t really for the vegetarian foodie. For a tourist in these parts, food is mostly a matter of pointing at a picture and crossing your fingers. It’s probably pork, but not necessarily the part you might expect. Unlike the experience of going to Europe or even Thailand, where Europeans abound, countries like Taiwan offer a different experience of international tourism. One that strikes me as superior.

Thomas Manuel is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016

Travel log

Getting there

Fly Thai Airways to Taipei via Bangkok. From Taipei, you can take a train ride for an hour to arrive at Houtong. Or you can take the bus 1062 at Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT

Stay

Houtong is a small village and just a day trip from Taipei. For a place nearby, try Wu Fan Keng Gongyuan Bao in Jiufen.

BLink Tip

After you’re done with the cat village, go to nearby Jiufen, the town that inspired the Studio Ghibli classic film Spirited Away. If you’re there in February, the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is a must-see.

Published on November 09, 2018
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