Once, it was a prosperous mining village in Ruifang District of Taiwan, renowned for its rich, well-preserved railway culture with the old Yilan Line which was built during the Japanese colonial period for transporting resources out of northern Taiwan.
Houtong was a train stop on the Yilan Line, and at one point was, with around 220,000 tons of coal per year, one of the largest providers of coal in the country: the largest amount of coal yielded in a single area in Taiwan.
This attracted many immigrants to the area, and during its golden years, Houtong encompassed around 900 households, for a population of about 6,000 people.
It was by the 1970s that the town’s fortunes began to fall into decline: as is often the case in such situations, the younger residents of the town quickly began leaving for new horizons and opportunities in the bigger cities. By the 1990s, the mining industry had died off in the area completely, and the population of the village had dwindled to less than 100 people.
Most villages in this situation would have simply disappearead and fell in ruin, but luckily for Houtong, it received a little feline salvation. In Chinese culture, cats are known to bring good luck, and this has certainly been the case at Houtong!
By 2008, a local cat lover organized volunteers to start offering abandoned cats a better life and so the small village had accumulated dozens of stray cats.
Seeing this as an opportunity to inject a little life into their town, the human inhabitants posted the cats’ pictures online, resulting in an overwhelming response from other cat lovers around the nation.
Soon, Houtong became a center for cat lovers as word spread, and the number of cats living there increased, thus reviving a declining village, and transforming it into a beloved tourist destination.
Still today Houtong is a fairly popular tourist destination that sees people come in from all over to see the cats (now numbering over 100!) that freely roam the area. A bit like the Japanese cat island of Tashirojima, which counts more cats than humans!
The village features shops, cafes and relaxing places for tourists.
Houtong residents are cashing in on the tourist influx by opening souvenir shops and selling cat-shaped pineapple pastries and shop houses selling anything: from paintings and postcards of cats, to cat-shaped pillows and stuffed animals. Everywhere you look, laughing cats, smiling cats and smirking cats are engraved on cups and bags.
One cat-themed coffee shop has a particularly symbolic location inside a coal mining museum. While cats laze on the floors, the museum serves as a subtle memory of Houtong’s history from the 1850s to its heyday in the 1970s. Looking around the cat village, remnants of Houtong’s coal mining past can still be found, especially in the rusty and dilapidated machinery and in its abandoned railway tracks.
Drivers entering the village are welcomed with a sign that reads “A lot of stray cats here. Drive slowly”.
Even the footbridge leading from the station’s exit across the tracks to the hillside cat village has recently been beautified and given a distinct “cat-look,” with ears and tail.
A special bridge has been constructed above the busy railway, to allow safe passage for the cats, allowing them to come down from the village and greet visitors who arrive by train.
Shops selling cat paraphernalia and the like have sprung up, but the true victory of the village are still the cats themselves.