Photographs of the 'Shop Cats of China' offer a unique glimpse into Asian culture
It's been five years since Marcel Heijnen introduced us to the shop cats of Hong Kong, a charming photo series that turned into an exhibition and accompanying book. Now the Dutch photographer is back, this time taking us to the streets of China.
Marcel has been living in Asia for nearly three decades now. But in 2015, when he moved to Hong Kong, he noticed something unusual about his new home city. "I saw how many cats shopkeepers have to protect their goods from mice and rats," Marcel tells Creative Boom. "This only happened in the traditional stores of the older districts and provided a perfect metaphor for a disappearing world, a small warm narrative away from the glitzy skyline the city is known for. And an excuse to photograph these places."
In the following years, Marcel found his niche and began photographing shopkeepers and their feline companions in stores across Hong Kong. For his latest series, Marcel travelled to various provinces across China, capturing many interesting images. From convenience stores and grocers to hairdressers and rug stalls, it's often hard to spot the cats amongst all the life, colour and produce, but it becomes a fun pursuit trying to find them.
His photographs also lift the shutters on a little bit of Chinese culture, as we see glimpses of a world where traditional retail and street life merge. Marcel explains that the trip was sparked by curiosity: "I wanted to know whether this was a pure Hong Kong or a more general phenomenon, the shop cats. So I started travelling to several cities in mainland China, around 10 in total. Some had more, some fewer shop cats. But I always found some to photograph, particularly in the older neighbourhoods."
Sadly, these traditional stores are disappearing across China as the culture and economy change forever. "It meant that I felt there was some urgency in this project," Marcel adds. "Other than that, it was pure joy, exploring mainland Chinese cities in the quest for shop cats."
Now available in a new book, Shop Cats of China is published by Thames & Hudson, with every picture accompanied by Ian Row's intuitive haiku and stories, which invite you into the cats' innermost thoughts.
The series is made all the more special when you understand the luck and patience behind the captured images. "I often just stroll for hours and days and wait for the 'magic' to happen," explains Marcel. "Sometimes I see a scene and just hope there's a cat to be found. And sometimes, miraculously, I spot one. People are generally friendly and quite entertained by my interest in their cats. This often results in getting tea offered."
You can discover more at chinesewhiskers.com or follow his latest updates on Instagram.