(CNN) – Best known for its annual International Flower Festival, Goyang is one of Seoul’s largest satellite cities. But for years, authorities have struggled to differentiate this city of one million from its peers.
The local government had several social media accounts, but no one seemed to care much about the content they produced. Something must be done.
“How about a cat to represent the character of the city?” someone half-jokingly asked at a meeting in 2013, noting the similarities between the city’s name (Goyang) and the Korean word for cat (goyang-yi).
Choi Seo-young, a public relations manager who dealt with the city’s social media, suggested that they test the idea on the city’s very unpopular Facebook page with a cat she drew on a piece of paper.
From joke to reality
In South Korea, cats were once considered clever creatures that bring bad luck. But Choi, among the youngest on the team, wanted to give them a chance.
Goyang’s Facebook account had around 2,000 followers at the time. But barely 24 hours after swapping the profile picture for a cat named “Goyang-goyang-yi”, social media users went mad. The mascot was an instant hit, with people across town and country wanting to interact with the feline character.
A cat poster greets visitors and a statue of a masked cat reminds people to keep their face masks on. There is even a “photo zone” where visitors can pose for a photo with Goyang-goyang-yi.
Choi Seo-young, head of Goyang City, poses with the cat she helped conceive.
Yoonjung Seo / CNN
The locals also adopted Goyang-goyang-yi.
“In the past, there was a saying in Korea that cats shouldn’t be kept with babies because cats are thieves and demons,” says Kwon Ji-young, a cafe worker and resident of long standing in town. “But those days are gone and I know cats better now. The town’s announcements are friendlier now that they come from a cat.”
“The city had a serious and slightly boring feel to it, but that has been lifted now that it uses a cat,” admits restaurant owner Lee Yeong-sook. “When I see messages from Goyang-goyang-yi, it makes me smile and I remember them more easily.”
Cats dominate social media in Asia and the rest of the world, and South Korea is no exception.
The feline star doesn’t need to do much to gain the attention of fans. Photos of him lying on a table, walking on the wall, or looking totally oblivious to the world garner thousands of likes. Lee published a book on Heek in 2017 that ranked in the country’s top 100 books for two weeks at South Korea’s leading online bookstore, Yes24.
The new popularity of cats is often attributed to modern lifestyles and the increase in one-person households in South Korea. It is known that cats require less attention and care than dogs. Many people say that watching cat videos gives them a sense of emotional healing.
Park Jung-yoon, a famous South Korean veterinarian, believes that the growing popularity of cats is due to a change in Korean society.
“People loved dogs for their unconditional loyalty, their pack animal nature and their respect for order, much like what South Korean society expected of its members. the image may have become more attractive to people. ”
South Korean cat owners often refer to themselves as butlers, a term that perfectly captures the power dynamic between owner and cat.
A survey released by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2019 found that cats are preferred by those who live in one-person households. Another survey released last month shows that one-person households in the country now make up more than 30 percent of all households in the country.
The popularity of cats among one-person households has even led to special house designs.
Pet Heim is a real estate developer who targets pet owners. The company’s promotional video shows a Persian blue cat asking, “Hey, butler, have you found our house yet?” and then presents an apartment equipped with a cat flap, a cat tower, a special cat bathtub and more.
Park Sang-wook founded South Korea’s first newspaper devoted solely to cats.
Yoonjung Seo / CNN
Until just ten years ago, cats were generally hated in Korea. Stray cats, known as “thieving cats” for their habit of tearing plastic bags to put leftover food in, were seen as carriers of unhygienic germs.
“Until 10 years ago, people thought cats were only good at catching mice,” says Park Sang-wook, editor of Yaong-yi, South Korea’s first cat newspaper, whose publication began in 2015.
“We could see cats being kept on a leash in stores or restaurants for this purpose. I can certainly feel the change. I have interviewed many people who were afraid of cats until 3-4 years ago but since then. the social perception of cats has changed, many say they have come to love cats. “
If they weren’t used as mouse hunters, people had no reason to keep them, so many cats lived on the streets. Cats were supposed to be born, survive by tearing up the bags of food people left outside their homes, and die when they got old or fell ill on the streets.
But things started to visibly change. Park says the number of pet exhibits was less than 10 until 2016, but that number has increased four to five times in 2017 and 2018.
“A lot of businesses that focused on having wedding or baby shows have moved to pet shows,” Park said.
South Korea’s fertility rate is the lowest in the world, standing at 0.84 in 2020. This compares to 1.73 in the United States and 1.42 in Japan in 2018, according to the figures. the most recent available from the OECD.
There are cat stores like K-pop or K-drama star stores.
“Cats are like celebrities now,” Park says.
Seoul cafe owner Noh Hee-jeong says she and her cat Eve clicked because they had “a similar personality.”
“I hear people say that I look tough and strong but I’m soft on the inside and I think Eve is like me,” she said.
Since Eve moved in with her, she has started taking care of neighborhood cats with other restaurant and cafe owners. They feed stray cats and hold meetings to decide what to do when they spot sick cats.
She has launched a campaign called “We are not things” and is trying to change South Korean law which still considers pets to be property, making it difficult to punish those who mistreat their pets.
Not everyone is in love with cats yet …
The great popularity of cats led to more people having cats as pets, and then to more stray cats, with some abandoning their new companions. Many wanderers then become victims of abuse or illness and end up in shelters. RAY, established in 2018, is one of several new cat shelters in Seoul.
“Animals were able to survive in their own ecosystem but with all of these developments they need our help. It’s time for humans to take care of animals now,” said Kim Eun-hee, founder of RAY.
The Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency launched a project in 2016 to catch stray cats, sterilize them and bring them back to where they lived, all with public funds.
However, this is not enough and many shelters are overcapacity. RAY is no exception with around 90 cats living in a small two-story apartment building north of Seoul. Kim is hoping to be able to move to a larger facility where the center can expand to save more cats.
Many cat lovers claim that more protection for pets and stray cats is badly needed, but no one can deny that the status of cats has been elevated beyond recognition.
Goyang city official Choi recalled that she had “never dreamed of a cat becoming an official figure in the city because of its unpopular image.” And that was less than ten years ago.
South Korea is well known for its fast-paced society, but even by these standards, this successful cat makeover looks surprising. From “dirty thieves on the streets” to pampered pets and social media stars, South Korean cats can experience changes even faster than the country itself.