In its heyday, Houtong perched atop Taiwan’s largest coal mine and extracted and processed around 220,000 tons of ‘black gold’ each year. While the mine brought prosperity to Houtong, it cloaked the surrounding mountains, and the lungs of the local miners, in vast quantities of acrid coal dust. This generated a roaring trade in ‘metal cow’ powder, an over the counter drug used to treat the chronic respiratory illnesses that afflicted so many. As the local coal mining industry declined and died out in the 1990s, Houtong followed suit. Its inhabitants drifted away in search of new opportunities. Ultimately, only a few hundred residents remained.
Things started taking a turn for the better from 2008, when local cat lovers enlisted volunteers and launched a program to care for stray and abandoned cats. Word and cat murmurs soon spread, donations and more cats flooded in and the ‘cat village’ began to emerge.
Arriving in Houtong by train, one emerges into an austere, grey station which has all the outward attributes of a 1970s prefab but was in fact built during the Japanese rule of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. Within the station, thick wooden ledges are occupied not by timetables and ticket machines but by railway themed images of cats and several real moggies; mostly black and white or tabby, plump and fast asleep.
On one side of the station building lies the bare bones of the old coal mining industry, including the charred and derelict shell of a once state of the art coal preparation plant. On the other side, accessed via ‘cat bridge’, perches the cat village itself. The village snakes up the mountain and comprises a few small, cat-themed shops and a collection of former miners’ cottages. Here, most of the resident cat population can be found, ambling around or just dozing like their train spotting cousins. They seem to be a little miffed by the steady flow of international cell phone snappers. It’s their village now after all.