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Travel & Holiday

Hello, kitty cafes, China is calling

At least 11 theme cafes where cats are pampered have sprouted since 2006
The Straits Times - March 18, 2012
By: Aw Cheng Wei
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Hello, kitty cafes, China is calling Four of the nine cats from Sirena Bar. -- ST PHOTOS: AW CHENG WEI

China is saying 'hello kitty' in more ways than one. In fact, it seems to be raining cats here, but not dogs.

The country welcomed the first theme restaurant based on the famous Japanese cartoon character Hello Kitty to Beijing recently, a culmination, perhaps, of its love affair with the feline.

Since 2006, China has played host to food and beverage outlets for lovers of real cats. These so-called cat cafes, where people can sip coffee while playing with kitties, have already clawed their way into four major cities.

At least 11 such outlets, which first appeared in Taiwan in 1998, can be found in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Kunming. They bank on an increasingly affluent society where people not only have pets, but can also afford to pamper them.

The cat cafes join a growing trend of theme cafes that cash in on everything from maids - where servers dress like Japanese anime characters and call their customers 'masters' - to martial arts and robots. There are also toilet theme cafes, with toilet-like seats, and food that is served on model toilet bowls. Some of the food even resembles what goes into toilets, although hopefully not in taste.

But few are as popular as the cat cafes. Inside, patrons find resting spots such as cubbyholes and cat stands, ensuring the purring ones feel as at home as possible. Scratching posts allow the cats to groom themselves while their owners knock back a latte or mocha.

To make sure the cats feel as important as their owners, some of the cafes even have dedicated entrances for them.

Chadoushe cat cafe in Beijing goes one step further, offering free medical advice for cats because a regular customer is a veterinarian.

Such creature comforts seduce both the cats and their owners.

'I bring my two cats here on the weekends to play with the owner's cats while I read a book, drink tea or chat with friends,' said financial analyst Geng Yi, 26, at Sirena Bar in Beijing. 'You don't have to worry about the cats.'

'I've not had any cat fight, because our customers understand that we are running a business. Most of them come to enjoy our cats because they cannot keep them at home,' Mr Wang Bo from cat cafe L'infusions in Beijing said.

Indeed, very few fights happen, if any, because these cat owners are very aware of their pets' temperaments, according to both Sirena's owner Zhang Lange and Ms Geng Yi. Most customers do not bring their own cats along, however.

Instead, customers share tips and adopt strays. Chadoushe, for instance, brings in strays and nurses them before finding new homes for them from among customers.

'We would hold events once a month for cat lovers to get together. It is also a chance for the cats to meet,' said Ms Zhang, 26, whose cat cafe is home to nine cats.

She said all the cats at the Bar are neutered. 'This reduces their aggressiveness and makes them more gentle with the customers.'

The cats are allowed to roam in these cafes, where the entrances and windows are sealed to prevent them from escaping.

However, Chadoushe, which used to allow cats to roam around the cafe, has stopped doing so. Now, cafe owner Yang Xiangrui keeps her cats in cages in the kitchen. 'I didn't want to use them as a gimmick,' Ms Yang said.

Cafe owners also keep the cats away from the kitchen area to ensure hygiene.

While there is no official data on the total number of cat owners in China because registration is not required, there are an estimated half a million cats in Beijing alone. The number includes strays.

Ms Zhang says she is breaking even two years after setting up her cat cafe, and makes about 70,000 yuan (S$14,000) every month now. Similarly, Mr Wang, who pumped 30,000 yuan into L'infusions, managed to recoup his investment within two years.

Attempts to open dog cafes in China, have, however, gone to the dogs. Four such cafes listed in Beijing were found to have closed down when The Sunday Times checked them out earlier this month.

One of the earliest pet theme cafes in China, Shanghai's Paradise, had welcomed dogs, but their barking drew complaints and they were forced to close.

Ms Betty He, 22, who works in Cat & Jazz, a cat cafe in Shanghai, said: 'Cats groom themselves better and they don't make as much noise as dogs do, so neighbours don't complain to the authorities.'



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