Heijnen observed that many of the local stores had their own cats. The cats were "Originally there to catch and repel rodents," he said on his website. But now, "These cats have become great companions to the shop owners, a true Hong Kong phenomenon."
So Heijnen launched a photo series on the shop cats, called Chinese Whiskers. "I love cats because they have a mind of their own," he said. "There is an other worldliness to them. Some people have this theory that they are invaders from another planet."
Heijnen said the shop owners have been totally fine with him taking pictures of their cats. "Shop owners are very friendly when they realise I’m photographing their cat and not them," he said. Heijnen added that the cats "are very ‘zen’ and calm, as they are used to people coming in and out and moving boxes around."
Heijnen first brought his shop cat photos to Instagram, under the Chinese Whiskers name. He quickly got over 17,000 followers, and earned the attention of the Blue Lotus Gallery, who exhibited some of the photos. "The shops are so fascinating and interesting, and so much a part of Hong Kong culture," said Sarah Greene of Blue Lotus.
Indeed, while the cats are the focus, the shops themselves are also an integral part of the photos. "While the cats are undoubtedly the furry celebrities of his photographs," his website reads, "each shot delivers an insightful context to Hong Kong’s busy trades. From dried fish and rice to paper offerings, the shots’ backgrounds present local culture in all its cramped and colourful chaos."
Heijnen himself reinterated the importance of the shops in an interview with the South China Morning Post. He said the project, "is about the cats, but it kind of isn’t at the same time. It’s just as much about the context; these chaotic yet organically organised traditional Chinese shops that form beautiful photogenic subjects in their own right."
With the success of the Instragram page and photo exhibit, Heijnen turned the pictures into a book. Simply titled Hong Kong Shop Cats, it came out in November 2016. It can be purchased at stores in Hong Kong, or ordered online.
Heijnen also discussed how the shops are a connection to the past. “Change is inevitable," he said. "Some of these shops are thriving businesses so they are still here. But some of them are being forced to close when a big developer comes in." But he's glad that some shops are still around, because, "I like it when neighbourhoods keep a balance."
Heijnen said the shops are places where "time seems to have stood still, devoid of branding and all the other modern-day retail trickery we’ve grown accustomed to." The shops feel like the could have existed in any era. And the cats only add to that experience.
Heijnen said the cats are considered to be lucky. After all, they take care of mice, and provide companionship to owners and customers alike. Which is why you don't mind if they wind up napping near bags of food.