In Sophon gently uncovers the lid of the jumbo aquarium in the front of his shop
and trails his fingers lovingly in the shimmering water to brush the scales of his
prized female dragon fish.
One-meter dragon fish like this one can fetch $2,000
"My dragon fish is pregnant again," Sophon said dreamily, following the
fish's movements with a hypnotic intensity. For Sophon, a 42-year-old Phnom Penh
dragon fish breeder, fish fecundity bears big profits.
Since 1994 Sophon has been capitalizing on an increasing popularity of dragon fish
among businessmen and politicians who credit the fish with being able to positively
influence personal wealth and health.
A common fixture of up-market city restaurants, dragon fish are increasingly perceived
as a prerequisite for success by the upper strata of Cambodian society, with a dragon
fish aquarium reportedly taking pride of place at Prime Minister Hun Sen's Takhmau
For each of the 100-170 baby fish that will hatch from the eggs his pregnant female
will lay,Sophon will be able to immediately sell them to a waiting market for between
$5 -$9 each. Since the beginning of the year he says he's sold more than 200 baby
Full-grown dragon fish, which can reach one meter in length and weigh as much as
10kilos, can easily fetch prices as high as $2,000 each.
Tang Chhay, the 59-year-old owner of Kea Heng fish shop near Phnom Penh's Wat Koh,
the glittering gold color of the dragon fish he breeds and sells is a fitting reflection
of the profits they derive.
"This one costs $1,800," Chhay said, pointing to a fully-grown dragon fish
prowling through a school of more down-market goldfish and red balloon mollies with
which it shares its tank.
The criteria that dragon fish connoisseurs demand in return for such a costly investment
is excruciatingly specific, Chhay says, including broad eyelids, straight backbone,
red scales and undamaged whiskers
"Dragon fish are like the men that women fall in love with," Chhay enthused.
"The fish's whiskers are like a man's mustache. Without the mustache, the man
is denuded of his masculinity."
But in spite of the sizable investment that the purchase of full-grown dragon fish
entails, fish enthusiasts insist that the returns in personal and professional fortune
that they credit the fish with are more than worth it.
Just ask Hang Neak Restaurant owner Ly Khieng, 57, who attributes the success of
her restaurant to the acquisition of nine dragon fish for $500 in 1995.
"When the scales of my dragon fish took on a rich red hue, my [business] star
was on the rise and many customers began to come to my restaurant," Kieng said.
Kieng says the ultimate proof of the power of her dragon fish came in 1999, when
six dragon fish died suddenly for no apparent reason.
Risky business - dragon fish die-offs are common
Shortly after, her business fortunes took a similar negative turn.
"The year 1999 was the worst for me business-wise," she recalled. "My
customers dropped by 50% and my Hollywood Club was closed down by the authorities
because of a shoot-out in the parking lot."
Kieng says she now tends to the care of her dragon fish with excruciating intensity
in order not to risk any future fish-death ill-fortune fallout.
But the touted risk/benefit dynamic of dragon fish ownership is not isolated to buyers
Breeders also warn of the risks of investing heavily in dragon fish, saying that
the fish breed's sensitive constitution can easily result in inexplicable mass die-offs
of the kind experienced by Kieng in 1999.
"Dragon fish breeding is very risky," said Tang Sotieng, 25, who has been
selling the fish since 1989 for between $25 and $2,000 each.
"The fish easily die after getting sick."
Sophon also cautions against the perception of easy profits from dragon fish breeding,
pointing out that seven fish he has reserved for breeding in an expanded dragon fish
farm he has invested in have yet to produce any offspring.
"All the eggs were infertile or the male fish ate them," he said with ill-disguised
In the meantime, however, fish vendors are still reeling from the record profits
they say they reaped in the prelude to this year's Chinese and Khmer New Year holidays,
when dragon fish became the gift of choice for high-ranking government officials
"In the early days I would only sell a few dragon fish each month," Chhay
said of the upturn in the dragon fish market. "Now I easily sell about 20 fish