Chinese Whiskers: A preview of a new photography book on Hong Kong's shop cats

Chinese Whiskers: A preview of a new photography book on Hong Kong's shop cats

Everyday is caturday

Text: Adibah Isa

Dutch photographer Marcel Heijnen has made it his mission to photograph Hong Kong's shop cats and the traditional dwellings that house them

Marcel Heijnen's works have tricked the eye of many an observer. Sure, they're visually striking — but what makes someone look twice is the enigmatic nature of his art. 'Residue' is a great example. An ongoing series since 2010, it captures the urban landscapes of cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong that are far from their glossy, postcard-perfect counterparts elsewhere. You never quite know whether you're looking at a painting or photograph. It's in fact a photograph — a gritty and alternative look into the urban lives of a city.

The Dutch-born, Hong Kong-based photographer (who used to spend almost two decades in Singapore) is continuing his exploration of cities with his side project, 'Chinese Whiskers'. This time, it's a feline attraction that has compelled him to pursue this "palate cleanser" of a series. Sleuthing neighbourhoods such as Sheung Wan and Yau Ma Tei, Heijnen's work not only captures the quiet moments in a cat's life, but also celebrates the old-school shops that house them. Months ahead of the series' first publication, we catch up with the photographer to find out more.

Behind the scenes with Marcel Heijnen

It's been a while, Marcel. Tell us, what made you start this series?

Late 2015, I found myself based in Hong Kong again after an 18-year hiatus and living without cats for the first time in about 40 years. 
Luckily, the Sai Ying Pun area that I moved to had plenty of feline distractions for me, and soon enough I was on first-name basis with a number of them. It was Dau Ding that I spotted first during a morning walk. I pawsed for a while, shot a quick iPhone photo of him and moved on only to find another kitty a few shops down the road. And another one.

It only took a few more of these encounters for me to realise there was a potential series there. So I started bringing my camera to these shops. Soon enough, it became clear that this series needed to be a book, or even a series of books. Right now the plan is to release
Hong Kong Shop Cats first, followed pretty quickly by Hong Kong Market Cats. If these do well, there are ideas of expanding the series further.

Are we expecting only pictures?

These will be photography books but the writing is going to form an essential element of it too. Hong Kong-based British writer Catharine Nicol is working on a foreword or essay, and Melbourne-based Singaporean poet Ian Row is working on a number of haiku that will accompany the photos.

The book's going to feature a number of cats, but it's not all about the cats, is it?

It's just as much about the context; these chaotic yet organically organised traditional Chinese shops that form beautiful photogenic subjects in their own right. Places in which time seems to have stood still, devoid of branding and all the other modern-day retail trickery we've grown accustomed to. The viewer might learn that there's a true symbiotic, loving and respectful relationship going on between the shop owner and the cat - the customers of these stores are clearly unfazed about these cats sitting on and walking through the produce once in a while.

Who are some of the most interesting feline characters you've met along the way?

There's one cat that I've nicknamed The Godfather (real name is Fei Zai which means 'fat boy'). He patrols the streets and back alleys in the vicinity of 'his' shop to look for other cats, and then sit and give them this authoritative stare as if to say 'I see you, stay away from my turf'. There's another one that always sits dangerously close to a chopping board.

How do the shopkeepers take to you photographing their space?

Most of them are jolly, love their cat and are generous when it comes to sharing information and allowing me to intrude into their space to take photos. One shopkeeper I met was a property agent who had about 13 cats in her shop. Visually it won't fit with my series but it was quite a feat. And she was not weird but rather wonderful.

Are you always on the hunt, or do you come across these cats and shops randomly?

A bit of both. I learned to always have my camera on me because a 'cat situation' could occur at any time. I do quite often look for them specifically and travel to specific areas to find them. 

Chinese Whiskers will be published from September this year. Available at all major bookstores in Hong Kong and Amazon. Stay tuned to updates on Instagram and Facebook.