History of the Tonkinese

by Mary L. Carsky, PhD

Presented at the CFA Judges Workshop San Diego: June 1995

Following seven years and four presentations to the CFA Board of Directors, the Tonkinese were finally accepted for championship in 1984--approximately 20 years after the first efforts to develop a breed that was intermediate to two of the most desirable--the Burmese and the Siamese. In the mid 1960's Jane Barletta in New Jersey, and Margaret Conroy in Canada, independently launched breeding programs to produce Siamese/Burmese hybrids -- Tonkinese cats. Their reasons for initially undertaking this venture were distinctly different, but nonetheless each produced a line of dark brown cats, with seal brown points on face, ears, legs and tail. The color was labeled 'natural mink, ' because the fur resembled a natural-undyed mink (Barletta 1986). Jane placed an advertisement in Cat Fancy which led to communication with Mrs. Conroy and with Mary Swanson in California. Jane collaborated with Margaret Conroy to draft the first standard for the Tonkinese breed (Bernstein 1980; Roy 1994). The breed was accepted for registration by Canadian Cat Association (CCA) in 1967, and first granted championship status by the same association in 1971 (Dallgherty 1991). At that time the breed name was officially changed from Tonkanese to Tonkinese.


The Tonkinese are acknowledged to be a hybrid, and often referred to as a 'man-made breed.' However, one might argue that unlike many hybrids (e.g. Ocicats, Bombays) the Tonks were developed from a naturally occurring hybrid. Wong Mall, matriarch of the Burmese breed, was a Tonkinese (Graf-Webster 1991). In her day, Siamese breeders viewed Wong Mau as a 'poor quality Siamese. ' Rosemonde Peltz (1968) in describing the Tonkanese commented that 'It is interesting to see the circle come round again when one remembers that the first Burmese imported to this country was a Siamese-Burmese hybrid. ' Tonkinese breeders, like the Burmese, trace their cats back to Wong Mall, a small walnut colored cat brought to California by Dr. Joseph Thompson in 1930.

The earliest standard for the Burmese, reported in a National Geographics article (Eddy 1938) and later described in a 1943 Journal of Heredity article, indicated that the 'official standards for Burmese call for a Siamese conformation, a chocolate brown body color with seal points and topaz eyes. The kinky tail common to so many malay cats has not been bred out of Burmese stock and is generally present. ' The National Geographics article was more specific in stating that... 'the ideal is medium in size, with body long and svelte, legs proportionately slim, .. eyes are round, ranging from a golden turquoise to yellow...(p. 633).[1]

Wong Mau and the Burmese of the 1930's were not the first cats answering to this description. The Chocolate Siamese of the 1880's, the Qolden Siamese of the 1950's as well as the Si-Burms , Zibelines and the Golden Chechongs mentioned during the intervening years were all characterized by a body coat that was tan to brown with seal brown or near black mask, ears, legs and tail (Barletta 1995; Bernstein 1978; Daugherty 1991). The first Siamese appeared in England between 1875-1877, arriving from unknown origins. In 1880 two cats entered England from Bangkok (Eustace 1975). In the 1880's, two types Siamese were described. The first and most well-known, the 'Royal Siamese' were the Seal points. A second type of Siamese was the 'Chocolate Siamese. ' Accounts of latter can be found in the early English books on cats (see Simpson 1902; Weir 1889).

The Chocolate Siamese were described very much the same as Wong Mau, but with some difference of opinion on eye color. Frances Simpson (1902) quotes one source describing the cats, ' ...the imported chocolate is often dark chocolate with blue eyes, stumpy tail with marked kink ' Harrison Weir (1889) quotes another description which says, 'The eyes small, of rich amber color. ' The Royal Siamese, with their sharp color contrast were favored in the show ring, and few breeders sought to perpetuate the Chocolates.[2] Thus, by selective breeding, the chocolates were gradually eliminated.

In his Journal of Heredity article, Dr. Joseph Thompson, et al. (1943) makes reference to a Hawaiian breeder, Lelia Volk, who in the early 1940's, produced a Siamese with a darker color variation. The color was reported to be lighter than the Burmese of the time. According to Dr. Thompson, the coat was close enough to the Siamese body color that it would not likely be perpetuated.

In the 1950's, Milan Greer in New York City began breeding 'Golden Siamese,' a Siamese/Burmese hybrid, but discontinued his program by 1960 Greer, an owner of both a Siamese and a Burmese, had seen several unusual cats which, in appearance were somewhere between the two breeds, with a rich mahogany body and dark points. Having learned that these were normally destroyed as they were thought to be 'defective' and would not breed true, Greer launched a breeding program to determine whether, in fact, these cats would breed true. Following experiments on mice, he began crossing Seal point Siamese to Sable Burmese to produce the mahogany cat. By cross/breeding the offspring of the foundation cross, Greer (1961), by his own account, claims to have bred 'pure' for five generations, producing only chocolate brown cats with seal or dark brown points. Not being interested in showing cats, Greer abandoned the project once he felt he had proven himself. Greer's cats were enormously popular with pet buyers in New York City during the 1950's and early 1960's.

Launching The Tonkinese

When Jane Barletta of Trenton, New Jersey switched from breeding Siamese to Tonkinese in the mid 1960's, the Siamese had not yet become the empirically slim, art deco composition of today. Jane, an avowed believer in moderation, was quoted as saying--'I don't like to fool with Mother Nature, it bothers me. ' Hence, she launched a breeding program to produce a beautifully balanced cat--a Tonkinese. At about the same time, Margaret Conroy in Canada bred her female Burmese to a Seal point Siamese. Conroy's motivation was quite different. She owned a rather shy English Burmese female whom she was hesitant to ship to New York city for breeding, where a suitable male had been located. Lacking an appropriate Burmese male, and at the suggestion of a CCA judge, she bred her cat, Khosoom, to a Seal point Siamese. The resultant kittens were described as having tan coats and turquoise eyes (Conroy 1986). The breed was dubbed, the Tonkanese. Her line reportedly bred true for five generations. In all her breedings, only one kitten was recessive to the Siamese.

By 1970 several west coast breeders were developing lines of 'natural mink' [colored] Tonkinese and new colors were being introduced. Jane Barletta was producing blues by introducing Blue point Siamese into her breeding program. Margaret Conroy produced a line of blues by crossing a color bred Blue Burmese with a Blue point Siamese and experimented with a Red point to a Sable Burmese. On the west coast, Mary Swanson (Chataigne Cattery) who acquired her first Tonkinese in 1967, attempted her first Seal point Siamese-Burmese breeding in that year.[3] Early Chataigne pedigrees evidence Champagne Burmese, Chocolate point, Red point and Tortie point Siamese, in foundation breedings.

Organizing The Breed

Jane Barletta, perhaps more than any of the early breeders, deserves credit for championing the breed. Jane facilitated communication amongst breeders across the country, first by placing an advertisement in Cat Fancy (June 1970) and second, through her appearance on national television. [4] The Cat Fancy advertisement brought her in contact with Mary Swanson on the west coast, and the television appearance introduced a number of east coast breeders to Jane. This led to an organizational meeting of the Tonkinese Breed Club and marks the beginning of the Tonkinese Community, a coast-to-coast effort to advance the breed, and to achieve show status in all associations (Roy 1994).

The small group of fewer than twenty breeders, began showing Tonkinese in Household Pet Classes or 'For Exhibit Only' in 1971. Members of the Tonkinese Breed Club (TBC) worked on a standard for the breed and approached the CFA Board in October 1978 requesting acceptance for Tonkinese. In 1979 CF A approved the registration of Natural Mink, Blue, Champagne, Honey and AOV Tonkinese. In 1979, at least 22 cats appear at CF A shows across the country in the 'Miscellaneous Class. ' During the same year, Joan Bernstein organized The Tonkinese Breed Association (TBA) as a CFA affiliate. TBA members were a tenacious group, active in 35 different clubs; and, most unusual for a non- championship breed, began sponsoring its own shows.

Three additional presentations before the CF A Board of Directors were required before the Tonkinese were granted championship status. In 1980 breeders requested the addition of the Platinum Mink color and use of malayans in first generation crosses. In October 1981, breeders approached the board to request Provisional Status, and a subsequent request for advancement to championship in February 1983 was denied. One year later, in February 1984, seventeen Tonkinese breeders from across the country approached the board a second time, requesting championship status. Finally the long sought goal had been attained. By the time the breed was accepted for championship, Tonkinese had appeared in more than 200 CF A shows and the TBA was sponsoring its forth annual show. Registration had grown to more than 800 cats, surpassing many other breeds in numbers (Rokaw 1984). The stud books were closed at that time, and all future breedings would be Tonkinese to Tonkinese.

Up To The Present

In 1979 when the Tonkinese were first accepted for registration in CFA, sixty-four breeders were registered. By 1994 one hundred seventy breeders registered at least one litter. Over the same period of time, the number of registered cats grew from 306 to 12,663 including 1630 AOV's. For the last two years, the breed ranked thirteenth in popularity (CFA Almanac 1995). The first Tonkinese were natural minks, and initially these were the most popular. Through 1983, only the naturals and platinums carried the 'mink' coat descriptor. In 1984 'mink' was added to champagne and blue Tonkinese to distinguish the intermediate body coated cats from the pointed and solid AOV's.

Over the past 15 years, the color trend has changed.

Toninese Registrations

As shown in Figure 1, for the first ten years, more naturals were registered than any other color. In recent years, the naturals have declined in both number and proportion relative to the champagnes and platinum. In 1991 the champagnes exceeded the naturals in number of cats registered, and in 1992 the platinums also exceeded the naturals. Since 1987 the number of AOV's registered increased dramatically[5]. In 1994, for example, 154 champagne, 158 platinum, and 223 AOVs were registered.

Toninese Registrations

Figure 2 presents the proportion of registered Tonkinese that have achieved Grand Champion/Grand Premier status. As shown in the graph, only one (blue) Tonkinese, a Premier, achieved this status during the first year of eligibility (1984-1985). From 1986 forward, the Platinums dominated, always having the highest proportion of Grands. Some suggest that this success in the show ring has contributed to the increasing number of platinums relative to the other colors. The Tonkinese color preference is opposite that of the Siamese, where the Seal points dominate and the Lilac points are the smallest of the pointed color classes (CFA Almanac, 1979-1994).


Other articles and histories document the difficulties encountered by the breed along the road to championship recognition (see Beane 1982; Bernstein 1980; Rokaw 1984; Roy 1994). The Tonkinese have often been viewed as a 'poor Siamese,' being distant from the ultra-slim confirmation described by the present breed standard. Burmese breeders, who worked to i hard to achieve the 'short cobby body' on the dark sable varieties, wince at the natural mink's points, reminiscent of the Burmese of the 1930's and 1940's.

The Tonkinese represents neither the Siamese nor the Burmese in its body conformation. In the early years, the first and second generation Tonkinese were more likely to resemble either of the parent breeds. In the fifteen years since the breed was accepted for registration, the type has been stabilized. Seventh and eighth generation Tonkinese could not be mistaken for either Burmese or Siamese. The intermediate, muscular body conformation is unique to the bred as are the gentle planes of the face, The breed is, however, by definition intermediate. Its only CFA championship varieties are the intermediate body color/point contrast, with the points being a darker shade of the body color. Its most distinctive characteristic has been the 'aqua eyes.' --also intermediate between the yellow/gold and sapphire blue of the two parent breeds. The Tonkinese breeders have attempted to do something never before accomplished in the development of anew breed. Other hybrids have typically sought to take the characteristics from one breed, such as the Oriental Shorthair acquired the body conformation of its Siamese parent. The development of the Tonkinese has been a more difficult undertaking. to strike a perfect balance.


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[1] In 1957 the Burmese breeders redefined the standard which emphasized the breed's difference from the Siamese: 'The Burmese was to be a short, stocky cat with a rounded head, short muzzle and large, round gold eyes. ' This standard has remained basically unchanged since accepted by CFA in 1959 (Graf-Webster 1991).
[2] A Mrs. Sutherland, mentioned by early writers, favored the Chocolate Siamese. However, she moved to the South of France where she subsequently died. Without anyone to champion the chocolates, they soon disappeared from the show rings in England.
[3] In 1970 correspondence with Cat Fancy and CFA Cat Fancier's News, Mary Swanson was told that Tonkinese was just a name for the hybrid and that it 'is extremely unlikely that CFA will ever recognize it as a breed. '
[4] Jane appeared on the daytime 'Jeopardy' show. When asked for a personal profile, she told the television audience she was breeding Tonkinese cats.
[5] In 1992, AOVs were registered by color so that the genetic registry would be true.