As the bus wound its way up the mountains I noticed that intermittent signage and debris began to reveal an industrial past, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of where I live in Australia. It wasn’t so much the terrain of this northern part of Taiwan that struck a chord, but rather a history of mining and the lasting environmental impact.
Home for me is Captain’s Flat, a quiet village in the ranges south east of Canberra that was once a bustling mining town with reserves of copper, silver, gold and zinc. Beginning just above Captain’s Flat, the Molonglo River (which flows into Lake Burley Griffin) and its tributary creeks glow with an unnatural brassy colour, an obvious stain from years of mine discharges.
As soon as I saw the lower stretches of the Keelung River, downstream from the Taiwanese village of Houtong, that distinct brassiness revealed itself, even brighter and bolder than that of Captain’s Flat. Needless to say I felt quite at home.
The more I found out about Houtong, the more similarities I discovered between it and Captain’s Flat. For example and perhaps trivially, both villages are 45 minutes by car from each country’s capitals, Taipei and Canberra.
Coal was rich in the mountains around Houtong and mining commenced during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), and lasted until the 1990’s. The town then declined as the employment opportunities disappeared. For Captain’s Flat, the decline occurred after the mine closed in 1962. Both towns once boasted populations well into the thousands, only to dwindle to villages of a few hundred when their respective resources booms came to an end.
But that’s where the similarities end. Houtong took a path that no one saw coming.
In 2008, an enthusiastic cat lover rallied together some fellow locals to offer unwanted cats a new home in Houtong. Photos were posted online and the concept went feline viral, and it seems the whole of Taiwan responded. Perhaps not every household gave up its cat, but abandoned moggies started arriving in Houtong by the carload. Within a few years the streets were crawling with kitties and this once forgotten mining town became known as, somewhat unsurprisingly, “the cat village”.
Sure enough when you arrive in Houtong there are cats everywhere, many of which have been desexed and sport trimmed ears as a mark of their neutering. The cats don’t overwhelm you, in fact they sit around casually welcoming guests with a smooch to a neat village spread across a scenic valley. The disused coal processing plant is a curiously attractive piece of industrial archaeology and sits adjacent to the less brassy, healthier upper section of the Keelung River. Rainfall is abundant in this part of Taiwan, and the mountains are green and rich with trees and foliage.
The locals have constructed and carefully placed attractive timber cat houses around the village, and a bridge has even been constructed to allow safe passage for cats to go back and forth over the still functioning railway line (sadly Captain’s Flat railway line has long since closed).
In Taiwan, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, many people live in small city apartments and are unable or unwilling to keep pets in such confined homes. So a visit to Houtong offers a chance to get out of the nearby capital of Taipei for a day and commune not only with nature, but kitty as well.
In riding this wave of feline popularity, Houtong has been able to generate interest in its mining history. Former miners and their relatives have created a tour that takes unsuspecting visitors into an actual shaft on a century old diesel powered mini-mining train. The tiny carriage wheels squeal painfully as they drag the hard-hatted tourists through an apparently dangerous, dripping tunnel, only then to emerge outside at a confusing collection of closed shaft entrances. After alighting the train, a friendly local offers up an informal mining history lesson in Chinese, which of course I don’t speak – but I seemed to get the gist of it as he waved around various old mining tools. Occupational Health & Safety inspectors obviously don’t swing by Houtong that often as my 3 year old daughter was encouraged to try her hand with an ancient jackhammer and my 5 year old son took (or perhaps lost) control of a rail handcar. They loved it.
Taiwanese people are by nature very kind, and it’s not surprising this small island nation has embraced the concept of a village that welcomes homeless cats. It has given Houtong a whole new identity that is now drawing tourists from much further afield than Taipei.
I’ve come home inspired, dreaming up ideas for Captain’s Flat to become a refuge town for injured and recovering native species (not cats for obvious environmental reasons), and thereby recreate itself as a destination for curious tourists. Cuddle factor is critical to an animal town’s success, as I learnt in Houtong, so I’m aiming more for, say, wallabies than eastern brown snakes.