The Tonkinese is the love child of the Siamese and Burmese breeds. The two breeds from Southeast Asia were crossed in an attempt to create a cat with a moderate body type, a less piercing voice than the Siamese but with loving nature and intelligence shared by both the Siamese and Burmese. But the story of their affair began with a case of mistaken identity.
Wong Mau, a small, dark-brown cat, belonged to Dr. Joseph Thompson. A sailor, knowing of Dr. Thompson’s interest in felines, had brought him the cat, acquired in a far-away port. Wong Mau was at first thought to be a Siamese with a chocolate-colored coat. Such Siamese weren’t unheard of. “Chocolate Siamese” were described in the 1880s. Their bodies were tan or brown, and they had seal-brown or nearly black points. The seal-point Siamese, also known as royal Siamese, had lighter bodies that contrasted with their dark points and were preferred by breeders and the public. The chocolate-colored cats eventually disappeared in Britain, but they still existed in Thailand and Burma (now known as Myanmar), where they were probably the offspring of natural (as opposed to human-directed) matings between free-roaming Siamese and Burmese cats. Wong Mau was one of them. It was her destiny to become the matriarch of two new breeds: the Burmese and, later, the Tonkinese.
The first deliberate crosses between Siamese and Burmese began in the 1950s with Milan Greer, who called the cats “golden Siamese.” He didn’t continue his breeding program, but other breeders became interested in producing a dark-brown cat with points and crossed Siamese with Burmese to do so. The Canadian Cat Association began registering the “Tonkanese” in 1967 and other cat associations eventually followed suit, although some, such as the Cat Fanciers Association, did not grant recognition until almost 20 years later, in 1984.
The name under its original spelling of Tonkanese was said to reference the musical South Pacific, which featured an island where no one discriminated against “half-breeds.” There was often confusion about the spelling, however, so in 1971 the name was officially changed to Tonkinese—after the exotic-sounding Bay of Tonkin in Vietnam—even though the cats had no association with that country.