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Tanking up on good fortune

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Cashed up Cambodians are spending big bucks on lucky fish

The row of shops selling aquarium fish, dotted along Street 63 near the junction with Street 174, looks decidedly shabby from a western perspective. But despite the shops’ dubious appearance, the owners are obviously able to keep their fish alive and well.

And they need to, because as well as selling mundane breeds like the common goldfish for 50 cents, almost every shop stocks sleek silver fish with a price tag of $2,500. Fingerlings of this fish are also available at a mere $700.

These pricey fish are arowana fish, also known as dragonfish, a predatory piscatorial specimen that has some sub-species native to Southeast Asia. Regionally, these critters are not faring too well in the wild – they are extinct in Myanmar and Thailand, close to extinction in Indonesia, and classified as an endangered species.

Endangered or not, forking out $2,500 for a mere fish seems to be exceedingly stupid. Aquarium fish, as anyone who has kept any would know, are notoriously finicky and have a nasty habit of being found in the morning floating on top of the tank, decidedly dead. Even the stress of moving from one tank, or “fish house” as the Khmer say, to another can result in death. Broken oxygen pumps, electricity blackouts and technical failure can also induce very expensive fatalities.

With a 50 cent goldfish, death is not such a big deal. But when two and a half grand’s worth of fish is found floating belly up, that’s a bummer, as one of the Street 63 fish purveyors agreed.

When discussing a $2,500 arowana, I asked the shop’s owner, “But what happens if it dies?” She laughed, and gave a “that’s tough luck” shrug.

In Siem Reap, the entry-level price for a decent arowana can be $4,000, but the major fish flogger in town, Heng Hak, doesn’t stock such expensive specimens.

The owner said, “The top price of arowana fish here is around $4,000, but normally people rarely buy these for their homes. They prefer to buy smaller-sized versions which cost around $50 to $300 because the big arowana can die easily if people are careless.”

But $2,500, or even $4,000, is merely the street-level entry price for common arowana – rarer and more prized specimens and sub-varieties are rumoured to sell in Phnom Penh for tens of thousands of dollars.

On March 25, 2008, Practical Fish Keeping reported that this particular fish had become “the popular pet of the super rich” in Southeast Asia.

The website reported that dragonfish or arowana are one of the most popular fish breeds kept in Asia, adding: “Believed by those of Chinese origin to resemble a dragon and to symbolise good luck, health, prosperity, family harmony and protection against evil, suppliers of these fish have given some specimens price tags of many tens of thousands of pounds.

“While these fish may be disappearing in the wild, their popularity amongst Asia’s richest is ever increasing.  There are whole networks of businesses devoted to breeding and selling these fish alone throughout Indonesia.

“At a recent fair in Indonesia, 50 competition arowana were valued by the Indonesian Arowana Club at a total of one million dollars and were placed under 24 hour guard.”

On March 14, 2008, AFP reported that the Jakarta fair dedicated to the arowana “ended with sales equivalent to $20,000 for one fish and $22,100 for another.”

AFP added, “According to Arowana Club chairman Stephen Suryaatmadja, famous fish are starting to generate reputations similar to racehorses.

“The ‘grand champion Singapore 2007’ was named Oscar de la Hoya, after the famous American boxer. Its owner was offered the price of a new Mercedes-Benz for the fish, but turned it down.”

On July 11, 2008, The Most Expensive Journal reported on “The Most Expensive Aquarium Fish”, an arowana, and said, “This particular aquatic vertebrate is a 15-inch platinum arowana owned by Aro Dynasty, a dragonfish breeder based out of Singapore. Its white coloration is an exceedingly rare mutation of the rather common arowana. It is, however, not entirely perfect; its right eye has turned downward. This is a common problem with arowanas – so common, in fact, that many keepers are paying for cosmetic surgery for their prized arowanas.

“Aro Dynasty has been offered $80,000 for the platinum arowana. A UK importer even offered the fish for £200,000 (then nearly US$400,000). “Unfortunately, the fish is not for sale. But those who attended Aquarama 2007 can still say that they have seen the world’s most expensive aquarium fish.”

AFP also reported that, in Indonesia in particular, the fish’s cachet had been boosted after becoming the fish of choice among the big guys.

AFP wrote that “The fish is also associated with power. (Indonesian Arowana Club chairman) Stephen Suryaatmadja said that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had just bought a ‘super red.’

“The late former dictator Suharto was also reputed to own one which he called ‘the thinking arowana.’  The fish, according to legend, was a silent consultant for the strongman when it came time to make difficult decisions.”

Meanwhile, back among the fish wranglers on Street 63, while the vendors are quick to declare that the price tag for their larger arowana is $2,500, they clam up when it comes to discussing the really expensive fish.

Eyes dart furtively from side to side, and there are mutterings about “tax problems” when it comes to discussing the high-end prices of the arowana trade. Plus, according to one vendor, there is the problem of providing “ID cards” for the top fish, which can be tricky.

This probably refers to the fact that sanctioned breeding of the difficult-to-breed arowana only takes place in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. According to AFP, “Breeders must register with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Each captive-bred fish must be sold with an accompanying certificate showing it to be at least a second generation captive fish. Each is also implanted with a microchip so it can be identified all times.”

Despite these precautions, the desire for these fish is creating a “very high level of smuggling,” Chris Shepherd, a regional program officer with Traffic Southeast Asia, a group which monitors the wildlife trade, told AFP.

“The profit margins are really high and therefore there are a lot of illegal captures to sustain the illegal trade,” he said. “The populations are rapidly declining. It’s a very urgent situation and I don’t see any sign of the trade getting smaller.”

And with Cambodia being Cambodia, it’s a fair bet that some of the high-end arowana in circulation in Phnom Penh are of the illegal or dodgy variety. Hence the nervousness on Street 63 when probing questions are asked.

FAKE FRANKENSTEIN FISH GIVES THE AROWANA A RUN FOR ITS MONEY
In 2008, the Borneo Post reported that “A fish with a grotesque gargoyle-like head, the product of a Frankensteinian experiment, is raking in a fortune for aquarium fish dealers. Among fish fanciers, it’s known as the Hua Luo Han or the Flower Horn fish.

“Since its entry into the market in 1998, it has taken the aquarium fish industry to dizzying heights. If the 1980s belonged to the arowana, this decade undoubtedly belongs to the hybrid cichlid.” An excited Borneo Post declared that demand for the fish was skyrocketing, as was the price.

The paper reported that a Singaporean businessman had recently parted with S$180,000 (US$147,000) for just one  fish, adding “The dark spots that cover the flanks resemble Chinese calligraphy; punters even swear these resemble four-digit numbers, and that stroking the bulbous head improves their chances of striking it big at the next lottery draw.”

According to Aquatic Community circa 2008, “Adult Flower Horn cichlids with very desirable patterns are extremely costly. High quality Flower Horn cichlids with markings similar to Chinese letters have been sold for several hundred thousand dollars.

“There has been a large hype concerning the Flower Horn cichlids ever since they were developed, and Flower Horn cichlids have been traded like stocks since their value can increase as they develop.

Today the hype seems to have cooled down a bit and a lot of people have lost considerable amounts of money during this process.

“Premium Flower Horn cichlids with a well developed hump and desirable markings are however still very expensive.”

But in recent times the heat has gone out of the Flower Horn market, and a top-of-the-line fish can be bought in Thailand for a mere $50,000.

The Flower Horn is indeed a weird fish with its big boofhead, but some critics simply dismiss them as a fake fish, a hybrid that’s been developed in aquariums and laboratories and has never existed in the wild.

According to Aquatic Community, the Flower Horn is a result of secret hybridisation between different South American cichlids.

“The Flower Horn was developed in Malaysia during the second half of the 1990s, and exactly which South American cichlids were used, and in which combinations, is still a secret. This secrecy has of caused a lot of speculation and a number of more or less reasonable theories have been put forth.

“One of the more far-fetched theories suggests that the Flower Horn cichlid was artificially created in a Malaysian genetics laboratory by combining genes from a goldfish with genes from the Trimac cichlid.”

The fish can also be further mutated by adjusting the water chemistry in the aquarium, and its food can also change its look. Fish stores in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap sell a range of foods that claim to improve certain characteristics of the fish: for example, Ever Red food promises to “enhance strong redness development.”
Other food on the market claims to enhance the all important hump on its head, which according to some fanciers makes it somewhat resemble the Chinese God of Longevity.

The size of the hump is also believed to be a factor in conjuring good luck.

The markings on the side of the fish add a lot to its value, again because of the perceived luck factor, especially if the markings resemble an actual Chinese letter.

An oft repeated claim, almost certainly apocryphal, is that an unnamed woman from an unidentified country won $1 million at the lottery by playing on the number displayed on her Flower Horn.

Indeed, some Flower Horn markings very much resemble the Chinese sign for luck. Such specimens are extremely rare, and the luck is really in having such a fish, because it will bring in the big bucks.

It’s now rare to find expensive Flower Horns on sale in the popular fish shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. These outlets mostly retail juvenile Flower Horns for between $50 to $300, and many punters try their luck by buying the cheaper juveniles and hoping that as they mature they will develop the characteristics that add value. Or as one Flower Horn fanciers site says, rapturous owners can watch as the fish unfolds its “charmness and beauty before your eyes.”

Most of the trade in super expensive Flower Horns is private, between club members and people who attend Flower Horn festivals in the region.

Typical of these individual Flower Horn wranglers is Siem Reap’s So Phanarith, who lives in his obviously wealthy parents’ large pad in the trendy Wat Damnak district. He’s converted the ground floor of the multi-storey house into a retail outlet called Vang Mach Chhar Shop, or Fish’s Palace shop.

Stepping into his domain is a bit like entering a breeding lab: dozens of glass aquariums line the walls hooked up to gurgling pumps and oxygen feeders, with a profusion of plastic tubing keeping it all happening.

The nerve centre is a desk and a computer where So Phanarith studies the trade and works toward his goal of breeding big bucks fish, although he adds that the really big money for Flower Horns is not in Cambodia, but in Thailand.

He says, “Normally in Cambodia the top price is around $5,000, but in Thailand it can be multiplied ten times, and the top Flower Horn price can be around $50,000.”

Thailand, he says, is where all the Flower Horn action is these days. He picks up a well-thumbed glossy Thai Flower Horn catalogue and flicks through it until he finds an article about a delicately spotted orange-hued variety that sold for $55,000.

He adds that there is an annual Flower Horn festival and breeders competition in Thailand where fanciers can congregate and talk about their beloved fish.  He says it’s a funny sight, with grown men bending over and kissing their fish through the glass, becoming ecstatic when the fish returns the kiss.

“They talk about the beauty of the Flower Horn,” So Phanarith says, “But also about its smartness.”

Flower Horn fanciers bang on about the supposed intelligence of their fish and the clever tricks it can do. The fish can barrel roll around the tank and glide up and down – and why wouldn’t they?  They’re ecstatic because they are usually housed in top-of-the-line glass aquariums that cost up to a couple of grand, and they are fed premium food, which in Cambodia costs about $6 per 100 grams.

They are also considered intelligent because if owners run their fingers across the front of the aquarium, the fish will follow the finger. And if the owners bend to kiss the glass, the fish will kiss back.

Of course, cynics point out that Flower Horns are exceedingly aggressive and belligerent. When they follow a finger or return a kiss they are not acting out of intelligence: they are attacking.

But why ruin the fantasy of someone who has shelled out thousands of dollars for a darned fish that may have a life span of ten years…with luck.

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