Famous feline photographer Marcel Heijnen: “Sai Ying Pun is cat central”

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As the artist launches a new exhibition, he tells us how his photos of cats in SYP shops are ‘an inroad to capturing a disappearing Hong Kong’

If you like cats, chances are you’ve heard of Marcel Heijnen. The Dutch photographer, who lives in Sai Ying Pun, hit the headlines last year after he published a photobook of ‘cats in shops’ in Hong Kong. In fact, up to 80 percent of the shops that were featured are in Sai Ying Pun, specifically in the Western Market area around Queen’s Road West. So the ‘cat photographer’ hasn’t just quickly become a famous name in the world of photography our city. He’s also become synonymous with the Sai Ying Pun district.

We meet Heijnen at Swing A Cat, a new gallery in To Kwa Wan, Kowloon, as he launches his new exhibition on ‘cats in shops’. The 52-year-old tells us he was never prepared for the local and international media attention after his Hong Kong Shop Cats hit the shelves at the end of last year but he’s since realised it’s because people don’t just love furry felines. He reckons they also love Hong Kong’s ‘disappearing’ culture, which, to him, is so evident in Sai Ying Pun. “To me,” he says, “taking photos of cats in Hong Kong’s old shops is an exercise or, perhaps, an inroad into capturing a disappearing Hong Kong, using cats as the way in.”

Heijnen is from Eindhoven in Holland. He grew up there but moved to Asia in 1992, where he’s stayed for the past 25 years, mostly in Singapore. He was in Hong Kong for a short period in the mid-90s but he returned again a year-and-a-half ago. And it’s since then that he’s become known on an international scale, with publications across the world running stories on him, due to his particular brand of ‘cat art’.

The photographer was once employed as a designer in both Holland and Singapore before he took on his own design business in Asia for 18 years. More recently, Heijnen is part of Chemistry, a Singapore-based design collective which he can contribute to as and when it suits him. “My design background has helped with my photography,” he says. “You think about composition and telling a story in both photography and design.”

Today, Heijnen admits that ‘photography has become the main thing’ in his life. His interest goes back to when he was just 15 years old in Holland. His dad was an amateur enthusiast and Heijnen started becoming passionate about the art. But it wasn’t until 2008, when he was taking a sabbatical from a design job he was doing, that he started taking all sorts of snaps and building up a portfolio. He then began exhibiting his works in Singapore and it all led to his first photobook, Residue, published in 2013, which is more of a fine art project compared to his cat works. In the book, he presents shots of Hong Kong, Singapore and China, all photographed behind a clear glass panel, creating an ‘alternative visual reality’.

It’s his arrival in Hong Kong which saw Heijnen’s career as a photographer really take off, though. “When I arrived,” he says, “I chose to stay in an Airbnb place in High Street, Sai Ying Pun. I started looking around and saying ‘this is such an interesting neighbourhood’. I loved it, so I’ve stayed in the area ever since. And then it all started when I went down to a Chinese medicine and dried seafood shop in Queen’s Road West. I saw a cat on the counter and so I shot it with my iPhone. I owned cats in Singapore so I guess I was just missing them, so I wanted to take a photo of this one. I posted it on Facebook. People responded immediately and so I thought ‘this would be fun to do as a project’. It became my Chinese Whiskers series. The rest is history.”

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After Heijnen, who is represented in Hong Kong by Blue Lotus Gallery in Chai Wan, had posted five shots of different cats in shops on Facebook, a friend said to him he should use the subject as his next photobook after Residue. He did some research, found that despite Hong Kong being in love with shop cats there wasn’t such a book already out there, and set to work. Before long, he’d taken enough material, mostly in Sai Ying Pun, and released Hong Kong Shop Cats with help from publishers AsiaOne in November last year. Cue local and international media interest. Cue many sales. Cue a huge online fanclub as a result.

“The old shops are part of Sai Ying Pun’s character. Its identity. And that includes the cats. Therefore, my work captures these elements before they disappear as the area changes.”

Cats, which are considered lucky in China, may be the subject, says Heijnen, but there’s more to his photos than that. “Cats in stores is a cultural thing in Hong Kong,” he says. “They’re treasured by the city. In a lot of countries in the world, cats aren’t allowed in stores. They’re not allowed in food stores in Singapore at all. And in Holland there was a case recently where the owners of a café were banned from letting their cat in the shop because there was food there.”

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“Humans domesticated cats,” says Heijnen. “We have a strong bond with them. And, with the case of shop cats around the Western Market area and in Sai Ying Pun, they’re both companions and functional as traditionally they chase after the mice and rats. That’s why there are so many shop cats in this area around Queen’s Road West. Sai Ying Pun is cat central. I have found cats in shops in other districts, like Mong Kok or Sham Shui Po or Tai Po, but I haven’t found nearly as many as there is in SYP. It’s due to the dry goods market, I’m sure, but it really gives the area a unique character.” Heijnen, who has a cat of his own at his SYP home, adds that ‘photos of cats will always do well’. “Actually,” he admits, “my own cat has become famous on my Instagram account. There are more hits for my cat than my other photos these days! It’s endearing.”

Heijnen is working on his follow-up to Hong Kong Shop Cats, called Hong Kong Market Cats, at the moment, which should hit the shelves in December. He’s also started work on Hong Kong Garage Dogs, which sees him branching out to man’s other best friends. It’s a way, he says, of getting rid of the ‘cat photographer’ moniker and, more seriously, a way of capturing some of the canines who don’t have it as easy as their feline counterparts as they have to spend their days chained up and guarding garages. It’s one reason he chose to exhibit at Swing A Cat, as To Kwa Wan is home to many garage dogs, so he’s currently doing plenty of research.

Swing A Cat has only just opened in To Kwa Wan and it launched earlier this week with Heijnen’s second Hong Kong exhibition dedicated to Hong Kong Shop Cats, called Swing A Shop Cat. It runs until June 4. Swing A Cat is run by caricaturist Stephen Case and graphic designer Catherine Tai, both former employees of the South China Morning Post. Tai is often called Cat, adding yet another feline touch to this grand exhibition, which Heijnen says also includes previously unpublished works, including ‘market cats’ and ‘garage dogs’. The space itself is owned by Tai’s father and it’s set to have a real To Kwa Wan community ethos, reaching out into the neighbourhood and including a room for locals to come and ‘chill out in’.

To Kwa Wan is similar to Sai Ying Pun in many ways: an old district with a close community. And it’s this idea of heritage and community in SYP that really inspires Heijnan. “In Hong Kong,” says Heijnen, “a lot of young people are into heritage. Sai Ying Pun, after the MTR opened, is changing. In the mid-90s I rarely visited the area because it didn’t have much to offer but now there are so many people moving here. And that’s changing it. So young people, in particular, are now looking at how they can preserve its heritage.”

“The old shops,” continues Heijnen, “are part of its character. Its identity. And that includes the cats. Therefore, my work captures these elements before they could disappear as the area changes. Most of the photos I’ve taken in Sai Ying Pun could have been taken 30 years ago. There’s no evidence of packaging or modern things you see in shops. There’s a timelessness to it all. But there’s also a fun element in some of the photos: like a Where’s Wally? Can you spot the cat in this shop? Basically, photographing cats is both fun and captures a fascinating past, particularly in Sai Ying Pun.”

Head to Swing A Cat between 3pm and 8pm, Wednesday to Sunday, to catch the exhibition. The gallery is at Rear Shop, 241 To Kwa Wan Rd, To Kwa Wan. 

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