Houtong is a small mining town located in Rueifang District of Taiwan, a district 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 one of Taiwan’s biggest coal-mining sites up until the 1970s. During its most prosperous years, Houtong’s mines produced some 220,000 tons of coal, the largest amount of coal yielded in a single area in Taiwan. This attracted many residents to migrate to Houtong, and the town grew to as many as 900 households and population of more than 6,000.
As the coal mining industry began to fall into decline in 1990, development in Houtong became progressively worse. Young residents started to move out of town to look for other opportunities, and only a few hundred residents remained. The once prosperous mining industry fell into ruins and was lying so for decades.
Things took an unexpected turn sometime around 2008, when a cat lover organized a team of volunteers to give the neighborhood’s abandoned cats a better living environment. They posted the cats’ pictures on the web and received an overwhelming response from other cat lovers. Visitors' raves on local blogs drew more cat lovers to this place who came to photograph the cats or fondle and frolic with them. Soon Houtong became a hotbed for cat lovers and amateur photographers. Today, the dilapidated mining town and the 100-odd felines that roam the streets are drawing thousands of tourists during weekends.
Houtong residents are cashing in on the tourist influx by opening souvenir shops and selling cat-shaped pineapple pastries. 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,” complete with ears at one end and a tail at the other. The bridge now even includes an elevated “catwalk,” allowing the cats to come down from the village and greet visitors who arrive by train.
The cats are looked after by the town’s residents. Chan Bi-yun, a 58-year-old retiree takes a lot of the credit for Houtong's feline-induced rebirth.
"I started raising five cats that belonged to a neighbor who passed away nine years ago and they gave birth to more and more kitties," she said. "Now I feed about half of Houtong's cat population."
Also see: Tashirojima - The Cat Island of Japan
Houtong was originally called Hou Dong, that literally translates to “monkey cave”, because there was a cave inhabited by a group of wild monkeys in the area during the early days. This sign is located in Houtong’s railway station. The doodle of a cat, a miner, a monkey and a railway bridge indicates the four major attraction in Houtong. Photo credit