Catty Commerce: Exploring the Purrfect Pawtnership of Shops and Cats in Hong Kong


Hong Kong's Historic Love Affair With Cats

In Hong Kong, a city where tradition and modernity coexist harmoniously, cats have been revered as guardians - not just against loneliness when they're adopted as pets, but even to combat pests that threaten the goods in a variety of shops. In a more symbolic sense, cats are believed to protect spaces against evil spirits, like the pair of lions outside the famous HSBC Building. Cats are even believed to chase off poverty, being revered as symbols of prosperity and fortune - now you know why so many shops have those maneki neko statues with their beckoning paws all across city!

Let's also not forget that in certain renditions of Chinese mythology, it was cats - not humans - who were chosen by the gods to rule the world! The legend goes that the cat goddess, Li Shou, and her entourage of feline friends were put in charge of the world. The gods gave cats the ability to talk so that they could better rule over all the other creatures. However, the cats preferred to laze about in the sun and chase mice rather than take their responsibilities seriously.

The gods chastised Li Shou and her cats to be more responsible, but they did not change their ways. In the end, Li Shou suggested to the gods that humans seemed to be more interested in running things, and that cats would rather just enjoy the world. The gods agreed, and this is how humans gained the power of speech and took over the world.

One might argue that in many ways, it's still cats that rule the world with humans as their proxy slaves!

The Tradition of Shop Cats in Hong Kong:

The tradition of having cats in shops in Hong Kong can be traced back to the early days of the city's development - though it is believed that cats were used to protect against pests as far back as ancient Egyptian times!

Functioning as an important trading hub, Hong Kong's streets were filled with stores and warehouses and proper sanitation was often lacking. As a result, many spaces were plagued by rodents and pests looking for a free and easy meal. Posing a threat to the goods and the health of shopkeepers and patrons alike, shop cats were employed as a natural means to keep goods safe from vermin.

Cats are natural predators, and their presence in shops helps to keep the pest population (mice, rats and insects) in check. By instinctively hunting down mice, rats and roaches, cats protect the shop's merchandise, food supplies, and even the structural integrity of the premises. This practical aspect of having cats in shops quickly gained popularity among shop owners, and the tradition continued to thrive.

Where You Can Find Shop Cats in Hong Kong

All the above pictures of shop cats (which I've clearly given random names to) come from the below districts with Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun being the easiest places to spot shop cats.

  • Sheung Wan: This district is known for its traditional dried seafood shops, which are often home to shop cats.
  • Li Yuen Street West: This bustling market street is a common place to spot shop cats. There is a mix of strays and shop cats in the area, with the most famous ones being the two resident cats at Hop's Handbag, a bag and suitcase shop that has been around for over 40 years.
  • North Point: Many of the butcher shops in North Point also deploy cats to keep their meats free from unwanted nuisances.
  • Lei Yue Mun: Lei Yue Mun fishing village is another cultural and scenic spot to find shop cats. From seafood stores to auto shops, there are plenty of shop cats to be found here!
  • Sai Ying Pun: This area, much like Sheung Wan, is home to many small mom and pop shops, some of which have resident cats. These shops often sell dry goods, including rice, noodles, and traditional Chinese medicine. Many of the shops also sell shark fin.

How to Take Pictures of Shop Cats

If you want to photograph shop cats, make sure you follow a few basic rules of etiquette.

  1. Firstly, do not enter shops and start snapping photos indiscriminately. Ask if it's okay to take photos before you photograph any shop cats you come across. While most shop owners were more than happy for me to take photos of their beloved cats, some didn't feel comfortable with the idea.
  2. Secondly, do not invade the cat's personal space. Some cats don't like being bothered. Avoid making sudden movements so that you don't startle the cats. Turn your flash off when taking pictures so that you don't blind the poor cats in the process.
  3. Thirdly, don't disrupt the shop's business to get the perfect shot. While photographing shop cats can be a wonderful social experience for you and shop owners, try to minimize the chances of losing them a sale in the process.

Have fun!

Lucky Ambassadors

Beyond their pest control abilities, cats are believed to bring a sense of good luck and fortune to the shops. The belief is that their presence in a shop will attract positive energy and ward off evil spirits, creating an auspicious environment for business success.

In addition to their practical and symbolic roles, cats have become beloved ambassadors for their respective shops. With their endearing presence and playful nature, they create a welcoming atmosphere that draws in customers. Many passersby are delighted by the sight of a cat lounging in a shop window or playfully interacting with customers, making it a memorable experience.

Shop cats often become local celebrities, attracting attention on social media platforms and drawing visitors from far and wide. It's not uncommon for tourists to seek out specific shops just to catch a glimpse of the resident feline. In this era of digital connection, these cats have become unofficial mascots, forming a unique bond between the shop, its patrons and the wider community.

Curiously, Domesticated Cats are Not Native to Hong Kong

Though shop cats seem right at home protecting their beloved abodes, all domesticated cat breeds are non-native to Hong Kong. The only breed of feline native to Hong Kong - save the now-extinct South China Tiger - is the Leopard Cat.

Leopard cats are known for their shy and elusive nature, which is why you've probably never seen one. They are also nocturnal and live in mountainous regions of the city, adding to their elusiveness.

Here's a bit more information about these gorgeous cats:

  • Appearance: Leopard cats are about the same size as domestic cats, but they have longer legs and webs between their toes. They have a yellowish body covered with leopard-like spots and they have distinguishing dark stripes that run from the forehead to the back of their head.
  • Habitat: Leopard cats are widely distributed across Hong Kong's country parks, but they are nocturnal and active mostly at night or in the early morning. They live in woodlands and rainforests, hiding in caves and other holes during the day and hunting at night.
  • Population: The population of leopard cats in Hong Kong is well over 50,000 individuals, and they are not considered to be endangered. However, they are threatened by habitat loss, interbreeding with feral cats and illegal capturing for the pet trade or for their fur.
  • Conservation efforts: The Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) launched a survey of its reforested conservation area on the slopes of Tai Mo Shan in 2020 to see how many leopard cats lived there. With the help of 19 camera traps, they spotted nine different cats, including two kittens, in the 148-hectare park! They also treat and rehabilitate injured animals like Leopard Cats
  • Leopard cats are protected under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance Cap 170 in Hong Kong, which prohibits the hunting, killing, or trading of protected wild animals

Leopard cats belong in the wild and would make terrible pets and shop cats! If you want to see one, you can visit KFBG, where they have one on exhibit. It was injured in the wild and developed eye complications, which is why it now resides at KFBG.