Hong Kong culture

Photo book Hong Kong Market Cats, sequel to shop cats, shows wilder side of city’s felines

Following last year’s Hong Kong Shop Cats, photographer Marcel Heijnen is releasing a second book on the shier, more transient felines seen around the city’s market stalls, with alley cats and China shop cats possible future titles

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 1:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 7:10pm

Dutch photographer Marcel Heijnen, whose 2016 book Hong Kong Shop Cats struck a chord with fans of the furry felines, focuses his lens on less pampered pets in a follow-up book to be released next month.

Hong Kong Market Cats captures a different class of the creatures – wilder, shier and more transient, Heijnen says.

In pictures: The allure of Hong Kong’s shop cats

“It’s got a different feel to it. It’s a bit more grim and desolate … because some of the cats in the markets are not owned by the stall owners but are strays that come into the market to see if they can find food,” the 53-year-old says.

“The shop cats, I found, are quite revered by their owners. The owners are really nice to them in most cases. They feed them well. They sit on the counter. With the market cats, you go back to a stall and it’s like, ‘oh, the cat... that one you photographed, it died.’ Or, ‘that one ran away and I’ve got another one.’ Or they’ve got seven cats, they think. It might be eight.”

Hong Kong Shop Cats, featuring pets Heijnen mostly spotted in the neighbourhoods of Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, where he lives, was an instant sensation. The first print run of 1,000 sold out within three weeks of the book’s launch last December, and a second batch of 1,000 also got snapped up. A third print run will be on shelves soon.

The number of followers of Heijnen’s Instagram account, @chinesewhiskers, where he posts his cat photos, has almost doubled to more than 22,000 since the book’s publication.

Heijnen says Hong Kong Market Cats, which he will self-publish with an initial print run of 2,000 copies, was a natural progression. He spent last year photographing the creatures in shops, markets and alleyways across the city. Hong Kong Alley Cats might be another book, he says.

Although he has become known as “the cat photographer”, Heijnen says it was never his intention. “For me, it was never about the cats. It was always about having an excuse and a common element that you can photograph.

“As a photographer in Hong Kong it is relatively easy to take lots of interesting photos. The mess and the visual noise – it’s so beautiful. The thing is how you make them special. So I put a little bit of challenge in there that it has to have an animal. Otherwise I can shoot every shop and it will be visually stunning but it won’t be interesting.”

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The popularity of cat photos is a no-brainer, he says. “Cat photos get more clicks than porn on the internet, I’m told.”

He adds that people also like his images for nostalgic reasons. “I think it’s mainly about the heritage of Hong Kong. It’s that time in Hong Kong’s history where you get a generation of people that are searching for identity and are lamenting that progress is so fast, and all this side of Hong Kong is disappearing. So I think it’s that combination.”

Nevertheless, Heijnen does see hope. There is still much of the flavour of old Hong Kong intact in Sai Ying Pun, even though it is fairly close to the Central business district. Shanghai, which he visited recently on a photo hunt for cats, is another matter.

“In Shanghai, development is incredibly rampant. So I think that there it’s even more urgent to capture it now because it’s almost like these cats in stores are connected to the old version of cities, because when they knock down these buildings, they build new, clean versions, and there won’t be a need for a cat. There probably won’t be a need for those kinds of stores any more.”

Heijnen says he is already talking to a publisher in China about the possibility of publishing a China shop cats book.

His fondness for capturing the older areas of Hong Kong before they are lost to redevelopment was not lost on the founders of lifestyle and design brand G.O.D. The company is hosting his book launch at its outlet in PMQ, Central, on November 15. Hong Kong Market Cats, which will cost HK$250, will be sold exclusively by G.O.D. for the first week after its launch.

The book launch will offer a teaser into Heijnen’s next project. He will also launch a Hong Kong Garage Dogs calendar, which will sell for HK$98 and coincides with the Year of the Dog in 2018. Ten per cent of sales at the launch will be donated to the charity Lifelong Animal Protection.

Video: Chinese Whiskers – HK’s cat photographer Marcel Heijnen

Capturing an even grittier side of the city, Heijnen hopes to have enough photos of guard dogs in mechanics’ workshops to release Hong Kong Garage Dogs before the end of next year.

“I don’t know how popular this will be,” he says. “It’s going to be a lot darker [than the first two books]. It’s not as cute. I’m already prepared that this won’t sell as easily, but it’s a nice thing to do.

“Again, it’s about the background. The one I’m using for the cover of the garage dogs calendar has a nice 1960s or ’70s orange sports car in the background with a black dog sitting in front of it, so that combination is nice. It’s not particularly about the dog.”

An exhibition of photos from
Hong Kong Market Cats opens on November 30 at 6pm at 9 Yu Lok Lane, Sai Ying Pun. Heijnen’s Instagram account is @chinesewhiskers