The sun beat down on the hot concrete. I wiped the sweat off my forehead with one hand, camera in the other hand, as I watched a gaggle of tourists clustered around an elegant white cat in a kerchief collar. A child was feeding it, spooning bits of meat gingerly out of the tin. The cat accepted these nervous offerings imperturbably; it couldn’t have cared less about the humans cooing over it.
Houtong (猴硐, which literally translates to “monkey cave”) was once a coal mining town with both pits and a treatment plant; a small, aged village about an hour away from Taipei. When the island was under Japanese colonial rule, much of the coal transported to other parts of Taiwan came through the village. Today, the coal treatment plant is in ruins—a worn-down foundation piled with rusty debris—but Houtong has reinvented itself as a tourist spot with a new attraction: cats.
Over 100 felines (some say 200) prowl around Houtong, on both banks of the Keelung River. Unlike the sweating tourists exposing themselves to the merciless Taiwanese summer, the cats were wisely lounging around the plaza by the train station, or seeking shade under eaves and plants. As I snapped their photos and petted their heads, I wondered who was living the better life: me, or them.
My first visit to Houtong was in May 2019—I’d taken some time off after a forum in Taipei, decamping to the tourist-friendly mountain village of Jiufen not far away. I’d first learnt of the existence of the Houtong Cat Village the year before on a previous visit to Taiwan, spotting it on Google Maps. My husband and I had picked a terrible day, pouring with rain, to visit Jiufen, and so we headed for the cat village.
The village was fairly quiet that day; it was not yet the peak tourist season. Armed with my camera, my phone, and social media, I followed the paths, past the sign that said “Cats Ahead!” Between the complacent felines, the cat murals, cat-themed gift shops, and a cafe with cat-shaped coasters informing patrons that their WiFi password was something along the lines of “meow meow”, it was, as I put it on social media, the cattiest cat place I had ever catted.
The reactions began coming in on Twitter (public) and Instagram (private) even as I sipped an iced drink and sought respite from the glare of the sun. While friends sent heart-shaped responses to my Instagram Stories, others—friends and strangers alike—began liking and retweeting my tweets, demanding more of this high-quality cat content.
By the time I got back to my room in Jiufen, I was a little bit Twitter famous. And the retweets, likes, questions and comments continued to pour in. My thread became a Twitter Moment. Some aggregation websites lifted my photos and tweets, reproducing them as articles for the clicks. (They never reached out for permission, and of course I never got paid.)
The response to my little Houtong cat thread was far more than I’d ever received for any of the features, commentaries, or reports that I’ve produced as a freelance journalist covering politics, democracy, human rights and social justice issues in Singapore and beyond. I even joked about this a little in the thread:
None of this will come as a surprise. It’s a well-established fact that cat photos and videos consistently win over serious journalism online; instead of media outlets fighting among themselves for people’s attention, journalism is engaged in pitched battles with YouTube and Netflix and Tiktok and everything else for people’s time and interest. It’s isn’t even a “trend” anymore—it’s just reality.
And this reality is often seen as a matter for regret, decried as a dumbing-down of society or an apathy toward real, important concerns. It’s seen as a representation of how, instead of becoming informed, people are only interested in being entertained—an accelerating tendency, some say, that will lead to the downfall of civilisation as society grows stupider and stupider.
It’s tempting to feel this way, especially when I see human rights stories that I’ve expended blood, sweat, and tears over receive only a handful of readers, while animal videos or celebrity trivia dominate people’s feeds, spreading to thousands, or maybe even hundreds of thousands of readers and viewers. After having spent all that effort on some Serious Reporting, it’s common for a journalist to feel like everyone should Stop What They’re Doing and Pay Attention.
But the reality is… I love the cat photos too.
Once in awhile, I set out on an exercise of pruning my Twitter follows. I ruthlessly unfollow journalists and NGOs and thought leaders on Twitter, only to find my thumb hovering over the “Unfollow” button of an account sharing kitten photos or memes. I never have the heart to strike them off.
At a time when so much of the news around the world is just relentlessly grim, content like animal videos and memes are the wholesome break that we all need. No matter how interested or committed one is to social justice struggle or fighting climate change or upholding human rights, we all need periods of downtime where we aren’t bogged down by the weight of the world. Sometimes what we really need to see is not another bloodcurdling Trump tweet, but a photo of a naughty ginger boy showing you his belly:
The challenge for journalists and news outlets around the world, then, is to figure out how to compete with this sort of cuteness. When our rivals aren’t each other, but the frivolity of kitten listicles and videos of proud pups with huge sticks, how do we find a way to get someone’s attention? And, just as importantly, how do we hold on to our sense of purpose and mission? (Especially if we’re freelancers, struggling to get by on irregular paycheques, only to see our holiday tweets ripped off by aggregation sites for profit?)
Sometimes I wonder if there’s a point to what I do. Over the years I’ve written hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of words, expounding on social injustices, human rights abuses, authoritarian overreach. I continue to put stories out into the world over and over and over again, in the hopes that these pieces will somehow make a difference, that they will get people to care and take action. But, realistically speaking, what impact have I actually had? Issues of LGBT discrimination (in a country where sex between men is still criminalised under Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code), the exploitation of migrant workers, and the clampdown on civil liberties in Singapore still continue to exist, and it’s not clear that my work has made much of a dent at all. Perhaps, in all these years, I’ve been nothing more than a pebble dropped into a lake; creating temporary ripples, but ultimately submerged and lost in the depths.
This is a challenge that’s connected to, but extends beyond questions of business models and funding in the media industry. It’s a much more personal issue, a question of how journalists self-motivate and value our own work at a time when we feel like we’re screaming into a void (only to lose out to Grumpy Cat, may she forever Rest In Peace).
Most of the time, I’ve kept myself motivated by reminding myself that the metrics aren’t everything—that numbers of clicks, shares, retweets and likes aren’t the only ways to gauge impact. If my stories can touch just one life, make one person rethink their position, prompt one person to take action or become more educated on an issue, then that, in itself, has meaning.
And in the meantime… I enjoy the cats without guilt.