Originally created by crossing Burmese and Siamese cats, the Tonkinese kept the best of its parent breeds and developed attractive traits all its own. Affectionately known as the Tonk by fanciers, this breed is prized for its playful, people-oriented temperament, unique mink pattern, and pleasing body type. For the last decade the breed has steadily gained in popularity and in 1998 the Tonk climbed into the top ten most popular breeds, according to the Cat Fanciers’ Association registration totals. The next year it had slipped back into eleventh place, nudged out by its relative the Burmese, but there’s no denying the Tonk’s popularity and bright future.
History and Origin
Planned breeding of the Tonkinese didn’t begin until the 1960s, but natural crosses of Siamese and Burmese have been around for hundreds of years. The breeds have lived in neighboring regions for centuries, and both were depicted in the ancient text The Cat-Book Poems, a manuscript written in the city of Ayudha, Siam (now Thailand) sometime between 1350 when the city was first founded and 1767 when the city was destroyed by invaders. In fact, the foundation cat for the American Burmese, Wong Mau, imported into North America from Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 1930, was determined to be a Siamese/Burmese hybrid.
Solid brown cats and “chocolate Siamese,” most likely early Burmese and Tonkinese, first came to England from Siam in the late 1800s, along with their better known blue-eyed pointed siblings. At first, all varieties were exhibited in British cat shows, but in the early 1900s only blue-eyed Siamese were allowed in the show halls. Cats lacking blue eyes were banned from competition and disappeared from the cat fancy.
The Tonkinese made its comeback in the early 1960s when Canadian breeder Margaret Conroy crossed a sable Burmese with a seal point Siamese. The kittens were lovely light brown cats with aqua eyes and appealing personalities. At the time, neither the Burmese nor the Siamese had been bred to their current extreme forms, and so the early Tonkinese were of moderate type, a body style they retain today. At first called Golden Siamese, the Tonkinese was renamed in 1971, allegedly after the Tonkin Lowland, considered the cradle of Vietnamese civilization. The Tonkinese didn’t come from that region, but the name had a nice exotic ring to it.
Although the Tonk was controversial at first — neither Siamese nor Burmese breeders wanted anything to do with it — the breed steadily gained fans. The Canadian Cat Association was the first cat registry to grant championship status, and today every North American cat association accepts the Tonkinese for championship. Tonkinese are particularly popular among cat lovers who favor the Traditional (Old Style) Siamese and want a cat with a less extreme body and head style than currently exists in the show models.
The Tonkinese is neither stocky like the Burmese nor svelte like the Siamese, but strikes a nice balance between the two. Surprisingly heavy when lifted, the Tonk is medium-sized but muscular and athletic. Females usually weigh 6 to 8 pounds and males range from 8 to 12 pounds. The head is a slightly rounded wedge shape, the ears are medium-sized and alert, and the eyes are almond-shaped and pleasantly slanted.
Because the Tonkinese inherited color and pattern genes from both parent breeds, the breed comes in three patterns depending upon the genes inherited: solid like the Burmese, pointed like the Siamese, and mink, that falls midway between the two. The mink pattern is unique to the Tonkinese and is considered show quality in most associations, although some associations accept pointed and solid Tonks for show as well. However, even solid pattern Tonks have darker color on the pointed areas of the body — the contrast is merely more subtle.
The mink pattern occurs when a cat inherits one copy of the Siamese gene and one copy of the Burmese gene. Since both genes are recessive, the result is a subtle soft shading from point color to body color. The eye color, aqua, is also characteristic of the pattern and the breed. Pointed Tonks have blue eyes and solids have eye color ranging from green to gold.
Accepted colors are natural (medium brown with dark brown points), champagne (buff-cream to beige with medium brown points), blue (soft blue-gray with warm overtones and slate blue points), and platinum (pale, silvery gray with warm overtones and frosty gray points). The contrast varies depending upon the pattern. Other colors such as red, cinnamon, fawn, and cream do exist but are rare and not accepted in all associations.
The Tonkinese has an appealing personality, not surprising since the Burmese and Siamese are both prized for their temperaments. The Tonkinese has the best of both breeds — the chatty, curious, and super-smart personality of the Siamese, and the playful, people-oriented devotion of the Burmese. Their voices are milder in tone than the Siamese and they are not generally as vocal. However, they do believe in feline free speech and want to share all of the day’s adventures with you when you come home.