written by Zhang Boning, edited by Keith Richburg, Apr. 23, 2017, Hong Kong
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. In a cozy café in Causeway Bay, one of Hong Kong’s most bustling shopping districts, Mr. Bread grabbed some snacks and started working. A yellow board marked “Manager” was hung on the door of his office.
Chewing up the snacks, Mr. Bread glanced around the café. The wall was painted in white and sky blue. Hanging on the wall were photos of him and his colleagues, and paintings of rabbits — Mr. Bread’s favorite animal. On the floor, there were 10 knee-high tea tables with two dozen of Zaisus, a kind of legless Japanese chair. Within minutes, customers, mostly couples and children, would flood in.
This could be any ordinary cafe, except that Mr. Bread is a rabbit. His office is a cage. The snacks he ate are grass.
Another eleven rabbits work with Mr. Bread and each day two of them could have a day off. They all work at Rabbitland Café, one of some 10 animal cafés in Hong Kong.
Animal cafés like Rabbitland offer milky tea, juice and spaghetti like other cafés, but also serve animals — not as a dish, but as companions. Animal lovers who aren’t satisfied enjoying coffee with humans go to animal cafés where many four-legged furry creatures sprawl on couches, tables or the floor, waiting for someone to feed or massage them.
In the past five years, about 10 animal cafés have opened in Hong Kong. Most of them opened after 2014 and at least eight were cat cafés. The number has been growing as all cafés tried to have something special to survive the fierce competition.
This unusual business is most popular 1500 miles away from Hong Kong on the Sushi island. Some 431 cat cafés have popped up in Japan since 2004, said Richard Jeffery from a Japanese website animalcafes.com. This business witnessed a boom in 2007 when there were 40 cat cafés, and media attention grew that number to about 200 by 2014. Apart from cat cafés, at least 23 bird cafés, 12 rabbit cafés, 7 reptile cafés and 5 dog cafés could be found in the country. This emerging business mode even began to scatter in countries including Korea, mainland China, UK, US, Australia.
Ricky Lam, one of the founders of Rabbitland, got his inspiration from Japan. Last year, he traveled to Okunoshima, an island in Japan where many hares live. After feeding and playing with the conies in a café on the island, he found the idea of rabbit café feasible in Hong Kong.
Licensing was the first problem confronting animal cafés keepers like Lam. To keep the food hygienic, the Food and Environment Hygiene Department in Hong Kong regulated that no food premises can keep or present live birds, pets or animals in a kitchen or dining room.
To avoid getting into trouble because of those long-ear creatures in the café, Lam didn’t apply for a restaurant license but a “Night-Club with Restaurants” license, which has no strict prohibition on live animals in the shops. But this license allows no cooking fire in the kitchen so Rabbitland has to use induction cookers.
“It’s tricky,” Teddy Chui, Lam’s partner, said with bitterness in his smile since animal cafés remain in a grey zone. They discipline themselves to clean bunny cages every day, keeping the café free from rabbit smell.
Although the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has an exhibition license for those who exhibit animals or birds in return for a fee paid, according to Joanne Ng from Trade and Industry Department, it’s ambiguous whether the profit of animal cafés comes from the animals or the food they serve.
It’s also hard for animal cafés to expand their business, according to Chui, who has another cat café in Hong Kong.
“A cat is not an object, but a life,” he said. “Unlike having a clothes shop, you can’t simply rent a place to open a new shop with the money you earned and place the cats there.”
A cat is not an object, but a life. Unlike having a clothes shop, you can’t simply rent a place to open a new shop with the money you earned and place the cats there.
The cost of running an animal café is high, especially in Hong Kong, where rent could go beyond imagination. The monthly rent of an 80-square-meter shop on the ground floor facing the street could reach HK$100,000.
The high cost has made some people worried that shopkeepers might not spend enough money taking care of the animals.
Anthony Leung, manager of a local cat protection organization called Cat Is Cat, thought the only good thing done by cat cafés is making more people fall in love with kitties.
He spoke louder and faster as he mentioned that these mini tigers, known for somnolence, couldn’t sleep well in a cramped place where people always wake them up for selfies and could easily get sick.
“Let me ask you, what would you do if the cats get sick? Buying a new one only costs HK$2000 but the charge by pet clinics in Hong Kong might be much higher than that. What’s the best way of treating sick cats?” After a second, he answered himself in an angrier tongue. “You throw them into garbage can!”
Despite the controversies, and with Hong Kong making no moves to regulate the business, more and more people are attracted by the idea of enjoying coffee with animals.
“It’s a good place for dating because girls love fluffy animals,” said Jonatan Seemann. He came across Rabbitland two weeks before and decided to take his girlfriend to this unique café.
On weekends, as many as 200 people visit Rabbitland each day. Parents who have no time or space for pets at home take children to play with the bunnies. Some of them hope children could understand that having a pet involves feeding them and cleaning after them.
As the chophouse became crowded after 3:00 on that Saturday afternoon, all the rabbits were kept inside a blue fence. All customers were asked not to take the bunnies off the ground in case they escape and hurt themselves.
The interview with Chui was interrupted when a group of 10, four children and six parents, came in. Chui disappeared in the kitchen to help make food. Half an hour later, a child accidentally broke the fence when trying to feed a rabbit. Chui rushed to fix it and left his right slipper behind, repeating “Siu sam” which means “watch out” in Cantonese both to the bunnies and to the child.
At the same time, Mr. Bread leisurely chewed up his snacks and sipped some water, giving no comment on those children.