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Five Minutes With: Marcel Heijnen, photographer of “Shop Cats of Hong Kong”

By Celia Lee 3 March 2023

Header image courtesy of Marcel Heijnen

Hong Kong is many things to its visitors and inhabitants. It is a vibrant metropolis championing finance, commerce, and all things digital. It is a melting pot of cultures. More than anything, it is a place where the traditional seems to coexist with the modern. With the ever-increasing encroachment of the new onto the old, many are rushing to document and preserve the essence of the city in whatever ways they can find.

One Dutch photographer has chosen to seek out his portion of Hong Kong’s heritage along crowded streets and between high-rise buildings. We spoke with Marcel Heijnen, the artist behind the iconic Shop Cats of Hong Kong series, ahead of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF) to talk about the allure of the old, how his photography books intercept the processes of cultural disappearance in cities, and, of course, cats.

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What is your background? How did you acquire an interest in all things creative, especially in photography?

“I am a graphic designer and slowly moved into photography. I was involved in design and photography from a young age; my father was an industrial designer, which made a difference growing up knowing what design was and having access to markers, lettering sets, and all kinds of tools. [My father] was also an amateur photographer; not super serious, but he had a dark room where he would develop photographs, and I think I took that on.

“Photography has been with me, and it has been phasing in and out of my life—I did some travels, I took some photographs, and for a while, I lost interest. I took a sabbatical in 2008 from my work, and I wanted to do something related to visual arts, but I didn’t know what, so I started with photography.”

What motivated your move to Asia?

“I moved from the Netherlands to Singapore in 1992. Initially, it was work [that motivated the move] and I would visit Hong Kong frequently. I liked the city and took up the idea with my superiors to relocate to Hong Kong for work. Later on, it was less about work in a way. In retrospect, I think it was my interest in photography that made Hong Kong more appealing [to me] than Singapore, being more inducive and more inspirational.”

You’ve travelled quite extensively. Do you have a favourite place to photograph?

“I think the answer needs to be Hong Kong, although I love travelling in mainland China as well. By now, I have explored Hong Kong for a while, [especially] being stuck here during the pandemic. I feel I have grown more familiar with the city. But there’s more to discover in mainland China simply because it is bigger. My last book, Shop Cats of China, was a fun project to work on because I would travel to cities without knowing where to find my subject. It felt more like an adventure when I’m in mainland China, but Hong Kong is still fascinating and beautiful to photograph.”

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Where do you go in Hong Kong for inspiration?

“I try to get lost a little bit sometimes in an area that I may not know too well. Even if I know an area, [I will] take another route walking through it on purpose. In the beginning, the whole Cats series was based in Sai Ying Pun, because I lived there, and I think that’s where most of those kinds of shops with cats are. But I was also exploring other areas like Tai Po and Yuen Long. Lately, I’ve been attracted to the whole area around Sham Shui Po. There are lots of little backstreets, and in such a vast area, you can still discover new things that have the Hong Kong character.

“[Occasionally], I discover a new area. For example, when I was doing the Garage Dogs of Hong Kong series in To Kwa Wan, I didn’t really know about [this area] before and I didn’t really know it was there. It has a lot of character and was very colourful, with a lot of backstreets. It was messy in a good way.”

What does a day in the life of Marcel Heijnen look like?

“I’m fortunate that there’s no one type of day for me—it never gets boring. [My day] depends on what kind of project I’m working on. When I did Shop Cats, Market Cats, and Garage Dogs in quick succession, I had not so much a daily routine but a seasonal routine. In the first half of the year, I would usually be in the Netherlands with all my material and be focused on the layout and editing of the books, getting them ready for launch in autumn. I’m no longer in that mode anymore, [and my day] depends on what I’m working on.

“It could be an exhibition and I need to work on the prints and the framing. I also do design work for other photographers in a more supportive role. But I always find time to take more shots of shop cats when I come across them.”

How did the Cats series come about?

“Initially, I shot a couple of [shop] cats with my phone and put them on social media. Quite quickly, these earned a positive response. I had already published one photography book at the time, so many comments suggested that my next could be on shop cats. I didn’t know if there would be enough material in the beginning but then I started going out with my camera and discovered there were lots of shop cats to the point where a photography book on shop cats seemed too obvious a thing to do. I was afraid somebody had done it already.

“I did my research again and found Facebook groups on shop cats where people shared their photos. The moderator of the page told me that, fortunately, photography books focused on and about the shop cats haven’t been done yet. So, I got to work. I could see the potential of accurate Hong Kong life being represented in this series. I think that’s what appealed to me. You are capturing the old shops, but you are also capturing the animal and the many relationships that form within that space.”

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Have you come across any reluctant posers?

“With shop cats, not really. A lot of them are quite friendly to people as they are used to them. The problem is that they would often come to me, which spoils my shot. Sometimes, I would get in a position for a shot and they would jump off and come to me for attention.

“When I did my second book, Market Cats of Hong Kong, you see a different scene. Very often, the cats you see there are strays and they come to pick up some food here and there and are usually very guarded. I don’t have any bad experiences with them, but these cats will run off so I will have to tread very carefully. They are usually hidden in the back [of stalls] but that made for interesting shots as well.”

Has your impression of the city changed after exploring neighbourhoods that most visitors to the city aren’t very familiar with?

“My impression has definitely changed from what it initially was. You become more aware that there is this whole layer of the city that’s of smaller streets and a slightly slower pace of life. And what I like about Hong Kong is that this encroaches into the city centre instead of being separated, and I find these two things mix quite well.

“It helps when you’re on the hunt for something, to explore with a bit of ambition. You focus not just on the neighbourhood but something specific, which leads you to a lot of areas. I have found this journeying shows that Hong Kong is more than just a skyline; there are even more impressions of the old and the culture in its commercial districts.”

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Photo: Marcel Heijnen

What are you hoping to share with the audience at HKILF?

“I plan to share in my presentation how the Shop Cats series came about and what kind of work goes into a book behind the scenes. In a way, it’s not just photos; there is also a design aspect. I worked with an old calligrapher and someone who wrote haikus, as well as someone who did a lot of research into the culture for the foreword of the book.

“I am also doing a walk on the same day, where people can go with me through the little streets where most of the shop cats are and ask me questions or bring their own camera to try their hand at taking photos of the cats.”

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.