Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

My Cats Were Stolen by the Cantonese

"Xiaohei (Little Black) and her two kids sleeping"

A Lesson on the Cultural Politics of Animals in China

In contrast to dogs, who were consciously breed from wolves, cats are believed to have never truly been domesticated, but instead, it is thought that cats just one day moved into the farms and granaries. The farmers needed help keeping the mice and rodents out of their storerooms and the cats were hungry so it seemed to work out fine for both parties. Perhaps it is their differing evolution, social adaption or their genetic makeup that separates felines from canines, but it is clear from anyone that cats and dogs behave differently.

Recently, a small family of cats moved into my balcony and established themselves. The mother, all black, and pregnant at the time has a homely personality that seems to indicate some previous life with a human family. Her children–teenagers, in fact, are 100% street. The boy, all black like her mother, and the girl, a mixed calico color, are beautiful but skittish and wildly around humans. While the mother will often seek out human affection, her teenagers are much less present and much more prone to hide in the background or even to disappear entirely at the sight of a human.

Compared to most cat families I’ve known, this family has been surprisingly close-knit, in spite of the age of the children. I’ve seen them spend numerous afternoons coiled up together in basket in my first-floor balcony. The mother’s love for her children was clear. At times they would disappear for a day or so, but for the past fews months (encouraged by the daily feedings from my roommate), they’d found a kind of home, a kind of security.

The cat’s out of the bag or in it?

A week or so ago, the mother, Xiaohei (Little Black), returned without her children. There was something not quite right about her, her look, her walk. Her physical body spoke of some emotional distress. She was looking for her children. One might argue that she was just looking for food or affection. But to me, it was her kin she was seeking. In the past few months, excluding the few days when she was kept inside after she was spayed, I’d not once seen her with her kids. I’d did really know what to think. Perhaps some family had taken them in or perhaps they’d been hurt. But after observing their behavior for months, it was impossible to imagine their separation.

I’ve become increasingly integrated with Chinese animals. My daily walks with my dog Jianjian and various pet-related administrative trips have shown me a different side of Chinese society. Ironically, even the other neighborhood pet owners don’t know my name, they all know and remember my dog’s. For last few months, along with all the other animals that have been added to my China “family” story, I’ve also had this small cat family join me. But what had happened?

China is not the easiest place to understand–too many people, languages, cultures and angles to any question. Even simple questions require long digressions to even attempt an adequate response. While the language and cultures of China still remain difficult for me to understand, though improving, I wasn’t entirely surprised by what had happened to Xiaohei’s teenager children.

My Cats Were Stolen By the Cantonese

When the topic was brought up with a local friend of mine, her answer was quick and firm: the cats had been stolen by the the Cantonese, the people from Guangdong in southern China.

While the nuances are important, there are really two sides or views on animals in China: animal-lovers and animal-killers. Sichuan and Chengdu is a relatively decent place for animals and you see numerous pet owners, but other places are not quite as kind to animals.

In small towns and in the countrysides of Zhejiang and Guangdong as well as other parts of China, it is not uncommon to “Dog Meet” restaurants. Local tradition views eating dog meat as particular beneficial for men and their vitality, sexual or otherwise. There is even an expression about the people of Guangdong: they eat anything with four legs, except the table.

My friend went on to describe a famous story of an investigative report on Chinese television that had tracked a group of cats that had been stolen and shipped off in trucks to Guangdong. Specifically, they had followed one cat’s journey to Guangdong and its eventual demise. Apparently, innovative techniques and devises had been concocted to deal with the difficulty of catch and killing a cat whose personality is difficult to control when under distress. It is said they often use specially-built barrels of water into which they toss the cat and which they then slowly fill with water to drown the cat.

While I’ll never be certain what happened to “my” cats, I cannot help but feel a sympathetic pain as see their all-black mother still searching and her pleading eyes that seem to say, Where are they?

I can only imagine the trick that might have been played to attract the children: the offering of a seemingly kind hand with some treat or snack. They were hungry so they trusted. The kind hand turned sinister. A hand that gave become a hand that took, took away and eventually killed. Perhaps also the very same had that ate.

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