Special Guest Post: This is Cat Country


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I’m pleased to announce a new series of guest posts here at The Neighbor’s Cat, and the first up is a story featuring cats from the recently published book Formosa Moon.

One part memoir, one part travel guide, and all parts entertaining, Formosa Moon features the cultural journey of an American expat couple living in Taiwan. Long-time Taiwan resident and seasoned guidebook writer, Joshua Samuel Brown and Taiwanese neophyte, Stephanie Huffman offer unique dual-narration of their experiences, including encounters with the cats of Taiwan!

I met Josh and Stephanie outside Qizhang station after I tweeting about cat cafes in Taiwan. We messaged back and forth and Josh generously offered to show me a few of his favorite cat cafes, as well as provide an introduction to a well-known street cat rescuer. It turned out to be one of my most memorable cat cafe travel adventures, the outcome being the recent post of Do Good and Have Fun, The Rescue Cat Cafes of Taiwan.

This is Cat Country offers an insider peek into Houtong Cat Village of northern Taiwan, a well-known tourist destination where several hundred cats roam freely, cared for by the villagers.

If you love travel and cats like I do, I think you will enjoy it!
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We were somewhere in the parking lot of Ruifang Station when the codeine kicked in.

“We can’t stop here,” I said. “This is cat country.”

“Yes mate, that’s why we’re here,” said Tobie, expertly backing his van into yet another impossibly tight parking space. At this point I was beginning to suspect that he was just showing off.

Perhaps it was the mullet roe, or all the seafood we’d eaten on our trip to Kaohsiung, but returning to Taipei my genetic disposition to the disease of kings had decided to give me the middle finger, and I was in the middle of my worst gout flare in years.

Sadistic imps of purine were happily sticking their white-hot knitting needles into the knucklebone of my right foot.

The small mountain town of Houtong, halfway between Taipei and Keelung, had become a well-known tourist destination over the last couple of years. The place had been overrun by cats, all cared for by locals who had collectively formed a strange alliance with the creatures, opening up cat-themed coffee shops, bakeries, and craft stores. Cat-loving bloggers and writers had caught wind of the place a few years back, and since being featured on CNN Travel, the place had gone gangbusters.

Tobie initially had no interest in the trip.

“I already went once to shoot an article for the Taipei Times,” he’d said when I’d first brought it up. “The place is overrun with cats and Taiwanese women squealing Ker-ai! [Cute!] every fifteen seconds.”

But Stephanie had been wanting to visit since she heard about the place. One of her greatest regrets on leaving Portland, in addition to my convincing her to go full minimalist and give up nearly all her worldly possessions, was having to rehome our cat Granola. She’d had him since he was a kitten, and giving him up was difficult.

That the ungrateful beast seemed to prefer living with my brother made it an even more bitter pill to swallow.

The codeine, however, was sweet, and regular sips from the plastic bottle were both allowing me to walk in a reasonably upright fashion and accentuating the surreal quality of Houtong’s feline-based economy.

“Ker-ai!”

Candice had spotted her first cat, a black-and-white tabby with a version of the toothbrush mustache adorable on cats but unacceptable on men since the 1940s for ironically the same reason. Hitler Kitty was lying in a basket beneath a table filled with cat-themed crafts in a store selling mostly cat-themed items on the main drag.

Everything was adorable. There was nothing we wanted.

We continued up the street, past cake shops offering cat-shaped pastries and coffee shops with pictures of lattes topped with cat-shaped foam. While each shop had a cat or two sleeping in the window, we’d not yet seen any of the street cats for which the town was supposedly famous.

“There seemed to be a lot more cats last time I came,” Tobie noted.

“I think there are more on the other side of the town,” suggested Candice.

Houtong, a former coal-mining town, is bisected by a railway, with the two sides of the town joined by an elevated covered pedestrian bridge. The bridge, naturally, is shaped like an elongated cat.

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I limped up the stairs and crossed slowly, stopping for another pull from the purple bottle next to three Korean tourists photographing a single orange cat sleeping on the bridge’s railing. On the other side of the bridge was a sidewalk with more cat-themed cafes, craft shops, and souvenir stores. Each store had a few cats snoozing inside, but we spotted only two outside the shops themselves. An old man was selling antiques in front of what seemed to be the town’s sole non-cat-themed store.

“We should ask him what happened to the cats,” Tobie said, and I did.

“Yes, up until a few months ago there were three times as many cats here,” the old man explained. “But a lot of these were strays, and fights were breaking out. It was unsanitary. The village got together and decided that it would be better if the numbers were limited to the cats that were being directly cared for by the villagers.”

According to the old man, the cat population was now somewhere around two hundred, about the same as Houtong’s human population.

“We should take one home,” I suggested to Stephanie. “Maybe two. New Garden City needs more feline energy.”

“That’s the codeine talking,” Stephanie replied, and of course she was right. We’d already decided that pets didn’t fit our new lifestyle, and in any event a cat wouldn’t last long on Dog Lane.

We stopped into another craft store, this one selling handmade postcards, cat posters, and other cat-themed items, none of which we wanted. A recording of sampled meows arranged in popular song form warbled over the stereo.

Meow! Meow meow meow…meow meow meow…meow meow meow meow meow.

Stephanie and I recognized the tune simultaneously.

“Is that…?” Stephanie asked.

“Theme from Ordinary People,” I replied.

A Taiwanese coffee-shop staple, the song had appeared many times during our journey, but this was the first time we’d heard it performed by cats.

The four of us explored Houtong a bit more, but there wasn’t much more to see. As we headed back to the parking lot, a wave of melancholia washed over me, brought on by a combination of gout, codeine, and memories of the synthesized feline version of a song from a deeply poignant film from my childhood.

“Are we ordinary people?” I asked Stephanie.

“Well, our current lifestyle is pretty unusual.”

As we climbed back into Tobie’s van, I contemplated our current lifestyle. Our apartment was large, even by American standards, but it was remote. Though there was a certain charm to living nearly off the grid, it was incongruous with the way most Taiwanese, or at least most Taipei people, would choose to live. Perhaps we’d made a mistake trying to recreate our bohemian lifestyle in Taiwan.

“I think we should move into the city,” I said to Stephanie, but Tobie answered instead.

“Mate, that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said all day.”

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Excerpted from Formosa Moon (Joshua Samuel Brown / Stephanie Huffman, Things Asian Press 2018). Buy your copy here: https://www.amazon.com/Formosa-Moon-Joshua-Samuel-Brown/dp/1934159700/

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Formosa Moon is a romantic and geeky cultural journey around Taiwan undertaken by a couple comprised of a seasoned guidebook writer intimately familiar with Taiwan and a first-time visitor who agreed to leave everything behind and relocate to Taiwan sight unseen. Part travelogue, part guidebook, part memoir, Formosa Moon is a dual-voice narrative offering practical travel information about this young and vibrant democracy while commenting hilariously on their often unusual travel experiences around the country, ultimately inspiring readers to explore Taiwan on a deeper level.