If you can’t secure a job as an urban planner by day you can always become an ornamental fish hobbyist by night and engineer a perfect underwater world. At the heart of the €10bn international trade in ornamental fish is the Aquarama trade fair in Singapore – “the ornamental fish capital of the world”.
Kenny Yap looks a little nostalgic when he recalls selling three arowanas to a Japanese businessman back in 1999. “Seventy-thousand American dollars,” he says, his eyes losing focus for a moment, before adding, “each.”
To hear Yap tell it, while these may not quite be the good old days of the late 1990s and early part of this decade, they’re certainly not scrappy either. His company, Qian Hu, is one of Singapore’s largest exporters of ornamental fish (basically any fish that’s bred for aesthetic appeal and not bound for the table). Yap has ambitions for his company to become the world’s top exporter, a feat he looks set to achieve. Revenue rose just over 21 per cent for the first quarter of 2007 to €7.8m, from €6.5m in the previous quarter. The company expects to maintain double-digit growth in revenue and profit over the next few quarters.
What makes Yap’s story all the more remarkable is that it’s not an isolated one. The world trade in ornamental fish and accessories is conservatively estimated to be worth at least €10.4bn, with most of the activity taking place in North America, Europe and Asia (which accounts for over 60 per cent of global exports). Since the mid-1980s, the annual growth rate has averaged 14 per cent.
These are staggering numbers, even putting aside the fact that we are talking about fish here. But what is especially surprising is that the tiny island state of Singapore has carved out an estimated 20 per cent lion’s share of the global market. It is the world’s largest producer of farm-bred ornamental fish as well as its leading exporter, reaching out to 82 countries. In 2006, its exports were valued at nearly €48m – up 9 per cent from 2005. This growth has earned it the somewhat cumbersome moniker of “the ornamental fish capital of the world”.
These figures help explain the huge amount of interest generated by the Aquarama show – formally known as the International Fish and Accessories Exhibition. Held every two years in Singapore, it is the industry’s largest international trade and consumer event.
This year’s show – the tenth since the first in 1989 – attracts 196 companies from 27 countries. Over the course of the four days in late May, 4,945 trade delegates (80 per cent from abroad), alongside nearly 18,000 fish enthusiasts from the public, scope out the latest offerings of luohan, discus and arowana.
The first two days of the show are open to trade only and were it not for the massive fish tanks that line the floor of the Suntec exhibition hall, you could almost swear you were at a spy convention. The outfit of choice is a suit and tie. Few attendees are smiling: they gather in tight clusters and engage in whispered discussions of currencies and breeding methods. Around them, rainbows of guppies and corydoras swirl around in tanks, their cheeks seeming to puff with air and their bulbous eyes perpetually surprised that so many people have come to see them.
On the third day, the mood is much more upbeat as the exhibition opens to the public. Perhaps by chance, Aquarama coincides with the school holidays and the hall is crowded with children and harassed parents. “We’re just here between tuition classes,” one mother wearily confides to me as we watch her kid tap the glass wall of a tank filled with bettas.
The demographics follow no discernable pattern. It’s a mixed bag of teenagers dressed for Orchard Road, hard-core hobbyists, grandfathers pushing prams, parents arguing with their children about how many guppies they can have, and middle-aged suits, some returning from the previous day. Almost everyone hoists a camera or video-cam.
“I’ve been to many ornamental fish exhibitions,” says Teo Tsoon Yong, executive director at UnoAquatic, “but this is one of the best. If exhibitors or suppliers need something, the organisers always respond very quickly.”
Kenny Yap’s enthusiasm for Aqua-rama is palpable. “This is the most comprehensive exhibition in the world. It’s such good exposure for Singapore,” he says patriotically. “There’s no other show that has such a wide programme of competitions, seminars and fish. I find it very inspiring intellectually.” But while the consensus is that Aquarama is a leading force when it comes to trade opportunities, not everyone is as upbeat about its other qualities.
Vinson Chua, a fish hobbyist who once owned a 200-tank experimental lab, reserves his harshest criticisms for the content of Aquarama, citing its lack of academic discourse. This year’s line-up includes a seminar on feng shui, as well as a round table on water gardening in America and how Sri Lanka’s fish industry is “achieving success under adversity”. Chua remains silent when I say that some participants told me they do find the event intellectually inspiring.
Eventually, he says: “Look, this industry needs high-quality R&D. We need more research on water control, breeding techniques and how to preserve DNA stock. We need to discuss import and export issues. These are things that aren’t discussed at Aquarama and they should be. And that information needs to be shared and not hoarded secretively like it is in the pharmaceutical industry.”
It could well be a case of just not being able to please everyone. Certainly, Aquarama is not without its flaws, but in the end, I can’t help but think: “It’s just fish.” And it appears I’m not the only one at the show with a short attention span. Though it’s already 15.00, the hall remains full. I pass a group of teenagers. One mutters, “There’s just no eye candy here. Even the fish look better.” The crowd eddies and flows, and just like the fish, the girls are utterly oblivious to the fuss swirling around them.
A perennial children’s favourite, the vividly coloured and fancy-tailed guppy’s reputation is somewhat tainted by its disturbing habit of eating its young. The males can be bullies so hobbyists often opt for the larger females. (50 cents to €150 each)
The birth of an albino arowana is literally a one in a million event. Its extreme rarity – there are only around 50 in the world – make the ghostly fish one of the most sought after. A Chinese customer recently paid €150,000 for a female. (€60,000 to €75,000)
Domestic staple, the goldfish and shubunkin are members of the carp family. Their respective streamlined and not-so slim shapes are firm favourites with Asians, not least because the gold colour is believed to bring fortune. (50 cents to €190)
Also known as Siamese fighting fish, bettas are marked by splendid frilly tails reminiscent of an early Comme des Garçons dress. The males are considerably more aggressive than their female counterparts, with showier finnage. (€1.45 to €2.90)
The peaceful discus takes its name from its laterally compressed body shape. Sensitive, shy and notoriously finicky eaters, they are particularly loved for their nurturing of their young, but are considered susceptible to disease. (€6 to €50)
Hailing from the freshwaters of South America, the tiny tetra is still one of the best-selling ornamental fish. Exceptionally low maintenance and brightly coloured, its peaceful and docile nature make it ideal for community aquariums. (50 cents to €24)