GEORGE TOWN: “I hated cats and was a dog lover for most of my life.”
The 53-year-old says this as he sits by hundreds of paintings, figurines and bookshelves dedicated to felines, and reaches out to lovingly nuzzle a cat.
This man is Shin Yew Cheong, founder of the Meowseum, a gallery housing thousands of cat-themed art pieces from all around the world.
His love for the animals grew after he nursed a stray cat back to health, and today, Shin has four adorable felines of his own – Chubby, Yoko, Maru and Boo – who live with him in the museum he also calls home.
Each piece is part of Shin’s 10-year art collection. He has travelled the world, curating works by various artists including the likes of Van Gogh, Dali and Picasso.
While the Meowseum is a public love letter to cats, it also intimately displays Shin’s deep love for art and his personal story of having battled depression.
The museum now hangs by a thread thanks to the pandemic, and Shin might be forced to sell his collection if things don’t pick up.
The thought of opening a museum never crossed Shin’s mind until it became an escape from Kuala Lumpur’s “toxic” hustle culture.
“I spent the last 10 years of my career doing advertisements and promotions for a tobacco brand,” Shin tells FMT.
“I’m a smoker myself, but trying to persuade kids who were just 18 to smoke and enticing them with imagery didn’t feel right.”
Despite living a “comfortable” life and climbing to the highest ranks, Shin was terribly depressed. And when his then-wife decided to end their marriage, it left him shattered.
“The whole reason I had taken that corporate job was so I could earn enough money to settle down and get a nice house,” Shin says of having always wanted “the life” with children of his own.
Shin found comfort in retail therapy, which reignited his deep-rooted love for art history, something he had studied in his youth.
“Online shopping was easy and I began collecting cat art as I wanted to see something beautiful. It became an antidote for my troubles, especially when I learnt about the artists.”
One piece became 10, then 100; and, eventually, with over 1,000 figurines, 700 art prints and an entire bookshelf dedicated to cats, Shin’s partner at the time suggested he had something special and should share it with the world.
Shin quit his job in 2019 and moved to Penang. The Meowseum saw its grand opening in September last year.
There are only 13 cat museums in the world, and the one in Kuching, Sarawak, proudly displays the world’s largest collection. But Shin’s Meowseum has something it can never compare to.
“In terms of the number of items I can’t beat them, but I have a personal touch,” Shin says proudly.
“I am the curator, owner and guide, and all of these items are intimate to me.
“Every piece in this room represents a painful point in my life. My first piece was bought after I had a bad day with my boss, and I still remember the particular piece I bought when my wife said goodbye to me.”
He says visitors would leave the museum with smiles on their faces. “It resonates deeply that I am now bringing meaning to people, and if pain can create happiness, what a wonderful thing it is.”
Sadly, the pandemic has stolen nine months of business from him and, to exacerbate matters, his business partner pulled out over financial reasons, leaving Shin to fend for himself.
While the Meowseum used to welcome visitors every day, these days he is lucky if he gets even a single visitor.
“Every sen I have is in this museum right now,” Shin says. “I basically have no money, and to generate money I have to either get revenue from visitors or sell my pieces.”
As most of his customers were foreigners, he has reduced the admission price of RM15 to just RM8 for Penangites in an attempt to appeal to locals.
The Meowseum is not only for cat lovers – it is for anyone who loves beauty and hopes to see the world in a new way.
From enjoying catnip tea while indulging in kitty literature, comics and history books, to taking pictures and admiring the gorgeous art displays, there’s something for everyone.
“Some people live and die without having stepped foot into an art museum,” Shin reflects. “What I am hoping to do is provide a gateway for people to start appreciating art in a very accessible form – through cats.”
47, Lebuh Melayu,
10100 George Town,
Business hours: 10am-6pm daily except Tuesdays