I knew that cats ruled the internet. But, until I moved here two years ago, I didn’t know that they ruled the streets of Hong Kong too. Here, cats sashay through crowded markets, laze atop parked buses, and fish unimpeded in the koi ponds of the city university. Several stores are especially famous for their “shop cats” — the fat orange tabby who sleeps curled in a tangerine crate of a local fruit vendor, the melancholic gray shorthair who keeps baleful watch over the wok shop on Shanghai Street.
But even more ubiquitous than live cats in Hong Kong are the cat figurines. You’ve probably seen one at your local Chinese restaurant, a white or gold statue of an upright cat with one arm raised. In Hong Kong, they sit on every shop counter, next to every restaurant cash register, next to the canned jackfruit on the top shelf of every tiny grocery stall.
After weeks of seeing them at every turn in the crowded city, it occurred to me that these cats had more of a function than Hello Kitty-style cuteness. But what was it?
As it turns out, my presumptions about the “Chinese waving cats” were incorrect. First, they’re not Chinese. Not originally anyhow. And second, they’re not waving.
The official name for these cats is Maneki Neko, and they’re Japanese. And that gesture? It’s beckoning — ‘maneki neko’ actually means “beckoning cat” in Japanese. A traditional Japanese “come here” gesture involves raising one hand and closing the fingers like you’re doing a one-hand clap. This, of course, reads to Westerners like a wave.
According to Lucky Cat: He Brings You Good Luck by Laurel Wellman, lucky beckoning cat figurines originated in Edo period (1603 — 1868) Japan. The most common origin legend involves a samurai who was beckoned inside a temple by a mysterious cat. As soon as he stepped inside, lighting struck the spot he was standing. Another, slightly less Disney-ready story involves a noblewoman whose samurai accidentally decapitated her beloved pet cat, whose severed head flew into the path of a theretofore unseen snake, thus posthumously saving its mistress from death. The samurai then had the “lucky” (for the noblewoman, if not for itself) cat memorialized with a sculpture.
Whatever the origin, Maneki Neko figurines were commonly seen in Japan by the early 20th century, and quickly spread to China and, largely via Chinese immigration, to the rest of the world. Originally made of clay, wood or porcelain, today Maneki Neko are usually ceramic or plastic, and the raised arm is often designed to move with a battery powered swinging mechanism. The most commonly represented cat is the calico Japanese bobtail, a breed which makes frequent appearances in Japanese folklore.
While Maneki Neko symbolizes good fortune of all types, she’s most often used as a financial talisman. The reason shopkeepers keep the figurines is to beckon customers and money into the store.
Lately Maneki Neko has become something of an icon and a design fetish object. There are Maneki Neko tattoos (I spotted two in yoga the other day, on each of a woman’s calves), Maneki Neko iPhone cases, Maneki Neko hoodies. Esty is a veritable catalogue of all the ways you can incorporate Maneki Neko into jewelry, clothing and home décor. In 2012, artist Boris Petrovsky exhibited an army of Maneki Nekos whose gestures could be programmed by visitors.
If you’re looking for a Maneki Neko to grace your kitchen or office, you may wonder whether to buy one with the left or right arm raised. Traditionally a raised right paw beckoned money, while a raised left paw beckoned customers (which made this model especially popular with business owners). For most of Maneki Neko’s history, it’s been largely one or the other, left or right. But after the 2008 financial crisis many manufacturers began making Maneki Nekos with both arms up. Because these days, apparently, we need all the luck we can get.
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Cover photograph by Flickr user wwwuppertal