*Many thanks to Jennifer Hubbard, founder of Cat About, for sharing such wonderful photos of her Tonkinese cats, Lucy and Gracie, for this post. Cat About manufacturers custom cat harnesses and leashes that provide "safe adventures for indoor cats."
What is a Tonkinese cat?
My friend Jennifer Hubbard, Founder of Cat About, a maker of custom cat harnesses and leashes, owns two Tonkinese cats named Lucy and Gracie. When I asked her recently why she chose the breed, she responded by relating two stories about her first encounters with these unusual cats.
Her first introduction to a Tonkinese cat was at a dinner party with a couple who owned a pair. Although the cats were friendly and social during dinner, one disappeared when the couple put their 3-year-old to bed, and reappeared unexpectedly sometime later. The couple explained the cat’s vanishing act by saying that the cat puts the child to bed each night, refusing the leave the baby’s side until she falls asleep.
Jennifer’s second encounter with Tonkinese cats was at an art gallery where she was greeted by two remarkably friendly felines. One of the cats actually stood up on her hind legs and proceeded to walk upright toward her to say hello. That sealed the deal for Jennifer. She had to bring a couple of these extraordinary cats home.
Where did the Tonkinese cat come from?
While the Tonkinese is now a recognized breed of its own, these cats are actually the result of a crossbreeding of two other cat breeds: the Siamese and the Burmese.
The first Tonkinese were probably the product of natural couplings. Siamese and Burmese cats are neighbors in their home geography of Southeast Asia and they most certainly got friendly with each other. In fact, early records describe the very first “Chocolate Siamese” cats to come to England from Siam in the late 1800s. Writings from the time characterize them as, “Siamese with coats of burnished chestnut and greeny blue eyes.” Researchers today think they were not all one type of cat, but more likely a mix of Burmese, Chocolate point Siamese, Havana Browns, and yes, Tonkinese.
The modern history of the Tonkinese is as convoluted as its early history. A female cat named Wong Mau, considered to be the founder of the Tonkinese breed, was brought to the U.S. in 1930. Siamese breeders at the time considered her a “poor quality Siamese” but her owner, with the help of some geneticist friends and breeders, conducted breeding experiments and concluded that she was a Burmese. It’s now believed that she was probably a Siamese-Burmese hybrid, and thus a Tonkinese.
Present day Tonkinese owners can thank two breeders working independently in the U.S. and Canada during the 1960s for deliberately crossing Siamese and Burmese cats. One of the breeders, Margaret Conroy, crossed a sable Burmese with a seal point Siamese. The resulting kittens had beautiful tan coats and aqua eyes, and she called them Golden Siamese. Eventually, the hybrid cats were given the name “Tonkinese” after the Bay of Tonkin region of Indochina, off southern China and North Vietnam. The namers thought the name sounded exotic, even though there are no Tonkinese cats in that locale.
Tonkinese are among the oldest cats breeds on the planet, but one of the youngest officially recognized breeds. They finally became an established breed in 1984.
What does a Tonkinese cat look like?
A Tonkinese is a medium-sized cat, weighing about 6-12 pounds. She has a solid, muscular body that is deceptively heavy, with a proportional tail that tapers toward the end. Most Tonkinese are short-haired, although there is a medium-haired type called a Tibetan. Her slender legs finish with distinctive oval-shaped paws. Her head is somewhat wedge-shaped with medium-sized ears, and her eyes are like little peach pits.
The most astounding thing about the appearance of the Tonkinese is his coloring. Tonkinese cats are graced with silky coats that come in the most extraordinary range of colors. There are four coat colors recognized by the Cat Fancier’s Association: natural (medium brown), champagne (golden beige), blue (slate-colored), and platinum (frosty gray). But Tonkinese cats can flaunt red, cream, caramel, apricot, tortoiseshell, fawn, and cinnamon coats, too.
Tonkinese coats are not all one shade. They sport “points.” or darker markings, on their faces, ears, feet, and tails. “Pointed” Tonkinese have a high contrast between their coat and points. “Solid” Tonkinese have low contrast. “Mink” describes contrast between the coat and points that is midway between the other two types.
A Tonkinese’s marvelous coloring doesn’t stop at the coat, however. A Tonk’s eyes are jewels to behold. They range from sapphire blue to aquamarine to the yellow-y green of peridot.
What you see is not what you get when you bring a Tonkinese kitten into your life, however. All Tonkinese kittens start off with dark blue eyes and lighter coats with no points. Their coat and eye colors continue to develop for up to two years after birth.
What is the personality of the Tonkinese cat?
The Tonkinese has been called the “dog of the cat world.” They are playful, lively, intelligent, and active. Very active. “I wasn’t prepared for their energy level,” Jennifer told me. “They’re extremely athletic and curious.” They use their athleticism to jump to great heights: the tops of kitchen cabinets indoors, and high tree limbs outdoors. They willingly fetch, just like a canine.
But their energy level may be offset by their strong attachment to humans. They’re “door greeters” who can’t wait to see who’s coming over to play. To a Tonkinese, everyone is their friend.
“Everyone” includes children, other cats, and cat-friendly dogs. They’re the perfect choice for families with kids who treat them politely and with respect. A Tonkinese will live peaceably with dogs, so long as the dogs know who’s boss. (Hint: not the dog.)
A Tonkinese craves affection and returns affection and companionship in kind. “Lucy and Gracie are pretty much wherever we are. If we’re in the bathroom, they’re in the bathroom. If we’re in bed, they have to jump on the bed and cuddle.” Jennifer enjoys the constant companionship of her two cats. “I have cat beds on my desk,” she explained. “If I’m immersed in work, they’re always nearby.”
A Tonkinese’s intelligence means that they’re interested in everything but can get bored. They quickly master puzzle toys, so it’s important to continue to provide toys that stimulate their minds. Tonkinese love interactive toys, and that includes human fingers and tails of their kitty friends.
But in spite of their energy a Tonkinese is also content to be a lap cat.
Any prospective Tonkinese owner should know that this is a vocal breed, but their voice is softer and sweeter than that of a Siamese. These cats don’t just talk to hear themselves talk, however, They talk with purpose and they expect a response!
Jennifer was inspired by Lucy and Gracie to start her cat harness business to provide “safe adventures for indoor cats.” Her harnesses and leashes are designed to be safe and secure for all cats, but especially cats that are as active and inquisitive as her own. Her products move with the cat without putting any dangerous pressure on the neck. “You never know,” she explained, “when one of my Tonkinese is going to take a flying somersault backwards out of a tree.”
 Martino, Linda. History of the Tonkinese, June 1995, www.tonkinesebreedassociation.org/HistoryoftheTonkinese.htm.
 “Eye Colour :: Tonkinese Cats & Kittens Queensland.” Anniesong Tonkinese, www.anniesongtonkinese.com/page/eye-colour/#/page/eye-colour/.