8 August 2017

Chinese whiskers: the photogenic cats of Hong Kong’s street shops

Happy International Cat Day.

[D]utch photographer Marcel Heijnen has been documenting the lives of Hong Kong’s unlikely, but highly valued shop assistants: the cats.

These impossibly photogenic felines bring luck, deter mice and add an otherwordly sense of charm and nuance to the Hong Kong retail experience. Whilst the cats are the focal point, when viewed as a series the gentle cohabitation between cat and shop owner is toucing to behold. “Most modern cities there will be all kinds of rules and regulations against cats in shops. Not in Hong Kong” says Marcel “and I’m grateful for that. Here we can still witness this wonderful symbiotic relationship between human and feline, and the very reason for it harks back to why we domesticated cats in the first place, centuries ago: mice-catching and companionship.”

We spoke to Marcel about his experience of photographing these  below. Follow him on Instagram @ChineseWhiskers.


Hey Marcel! These cats look pretty content…is Hong Kong a good place to be a cat?

I think so, especially if you get adopted by a shop owner. You see, the main function of the cat in the shop is its presence as the smell of a cat is a deterrent for mice. The cat doesn’t even need to get up and chase mice, it can just sit there, eat and sleep, while the humans around him do all the work. The cat has the best deal; it’s the real owner of the place.

How do the shop-owners react to your request to photograph the cats?

Generally they are totally fine with it and quite amused by me taking interest in their cat. Most of them really love their feline companion and are proud of them. Photographing people in Chinese culture can prove slightly tricky as especially older Chinese people do not like being photographed but once they know I’m there for their cat and not them, they are fine with it. Of course, I’ve still ‘stolen’ some moments between the cat and the shop owner regularly. The main people featured in the series were aware that I was working on a photo book and once it was done I went to give them a copy and they seemed overjoyed.

Some people believe cats bring good luck, what do you think?

Well, having an animal in a store definitely give the place a different ‘energy’. There’s a Chinese belief that if a stray animal adopts you and your place it bring good fortune. I do subscribe to that as animals have a stronger sense for the energy of a place than us humans, generally. But then again, not all shop cats have decided to adopt their new surroundings, most were brought in by the owner. One owner shared with me that his cat makes customers stay in the store a bit longer, just to spend time with the cat, and they usually end up buying more items, so that is how his cat brings him luck.

Can you tell us about another photographer or artist capturing a scene in Hong Kong?

My good friend Romain Jacquet-Lagreze. Another photographer friend is Michelle Chan.

Nice…Thanks Marcel!

Check out more in the gallery below.