Begin digging, keep digging, and eventually you’ll emerge on the other side of the world in China. Or so goes the childhood fable told to some by their parents and witnessed by others while watching Looney Tunes cartoons, such as Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Now, if you were to begin digging a hole in the Middle Kingdom, as you worked your way down through the substratum, you might turn up, depending on where you dig, any number of artifacts dating from relatively modern times to millennium-old antiquities. Throughout its 8,000-year history, China has continually reinvented itself, with its well-heralded economic boom of the past decade being the most recent example.
Given its current progressive business climate, virtually any Chinese occupation harbors a blueprint for a burgeoning industry. This is definitely true of home ornamental fish breeding, especially in Tianjin, China, where the local government and the Tianjin Zeming Industry Group Company have combined forces to construct the more than $159-million, 3.98-million-square-foot Tianjin Ornamental Fish Science and Technology Park.
The Technology Park, completed in April 2011, is remarkable considering the entire area was nothing but rice fields prior to April 2010 when groundbreaking first occurred. The new Tianjin Ornamental Fish Science and Technology Park will drive the ornamental fish trade in northern China, as well as become the largest ornamental fish export-import distribution center in China; it will include the largest ornamental fish immunity (quarantine) center in China, as well as many fish greenhouses.
Bringing Home Fish Breeding out from the shadows
According to Nathan Chiang, spokesman for the International Metropolitan Aquarium Business Association (IMABA), the coastal city of Tianjin (with a 2010 metro population of more than 12 million) is famous throughout China because of its many home fish breeders – some 40,000 of them. Chiang has personally visited some of these local home fish breeders, and he reports that in some instances, up to two-thirds of a fish breeder’s living space is devoted to fish tanks for breeding mature fish and rearing fry.
Popular ornamental fish in China – and thus some of the probable fish of choice among Tianjin home fish breeders – include Asian arowanas (aka “dragonfish“), which are popular among the Chinese and are harbingers of luck, wealth, prosperity and protection; blood parrotfish, which were first created in Taiwan in 1986 by crossing several species of cichlids (the bright red fish are also popular because red is a lucky color in China); discus (originally from South America, these fish are mostly aquacultured in Asia now); myriad goldfish varieties (China invented the goldfish); koi and many others.
“Home breeders don’t know how to export. The greenhouse [fish] farmers must have connections with home breeders,” said Chiang. Home breeders can provide greenhouse farmers with mature breeding pairs as well as young fish that can be grown to saleable sizes in these grow-out greenhouses, after which mature fish can be moved into the ornamental fish supply pipeline.
Prior to the Science and Technology Park, Tianjin home fish breeders would get their fish to market by transporting them by truck to Beijing and by air to Guangzhou then on to Hong Kong, and from there they were exported everywhere. The Tianjin Ornamental Fish Science and Technology Park will allow Tianjin-bred fish to be exported directly out of Tianjin, as well as transported to nearby Beijing and air transported to any place in the world.
The industry of fish
When first entering the Science and Technology Park from the main highway, you encounter three monolithic buildings: two under construction, slated for ribbon-cutting in April 2011, as well as the finished five-story horseshoe-shaped trade demonstration center. The soon-to-be-completed structures include a 387,500-square-foot research and development center, which will plumb the mysteries of such things as common fish diseases – so often the bane of fish breeders, exporters and importers, retailers and home fishkeepers at the end of the supply chain.
The squat building between the research and trade centers is a hotel, where trade show participants and tourists who have come to enjoy fish shows open to the public can stay. Several tourist buses pulled up to the trade and demonstration center while I was there; there’s already a lot for visitors to see. For example, there’s the China (Binhai) First World Aquarium Pets and Supplies Expo (WAPSE) that is currently running through April 13, 2011.
The lobby of the trade center welcomes visitors with four unique, very large display aquariums. Below a big-screen video screen is a more than 52,000-gallon-capacity wavy-front tank filled with spectacular marine creatures, including batfish, sharks and a sea turtle. There is also a large arowana display, a large koi display and a waist-high tank with a model of the entire Science and Technology Park in it, with small fish swimming around the model’s miniature structures like a Lilliputian version of the trade center.
Also, a separate sightseeing and leisure area taking up the back one-third of the Science and Technology Park will include two artificial lakes, part of an international sport fishing venue (the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush is purported to already be a member) and an education center, as well as bungalows for members to stay in. Visitors who have specifically come to enjoy the international sport fishing area can also stay in the hotel adjacent to the research and development center.
The five-story 484,376-square-foot trade and demonstration center is currently hosting WAPSE, which is being overseen by IMABA. Similar in many respects to U.S. aquarium trade shows, WAPSE impressively covers 161,458 square feet of exhibit space, and involves more than 300 vendors with booth space and some 2,000 group fish tanks. While ornamental freshwater fish predominate, marine fish, planted tanks and a goldfish exhibit with large ceramic basins (the traditional Chinese way of keeping goldfish) help to hold the rapt attention of visitors. Discus and arowana competitions (and others) have either been held or will be held during the show’s October-to-April run. In the years to come, trade shows like WAPSE will be rotated through the trade and demonstration center, which will also include a leisure pets (dog and cat supplies) “supermarket,” aquarium shops and aquarium-company offices.
Directly behind the dramatic front of the research and trade centers lies the world’s largest immunity center for ornamental fish. Easily recognizable, the multi-domed immunity center buildings provide immunity areas for coldwater fish, consisting of large, round heavy-duty blue tubs, each with its own dedicated sand filter. Directly across the street from the coldwater facility is the quarantine area for tropical freshwater and marine fish. While not open to the public, those with the right connections are allowed access into the facility but only until the inner enclosed area with the quarantine tanks is encountered. This inner sanctum is reserved only for immunity specialists who work directly with the fish.
The immunity center at the Tianjin Ornamental Fish Science and Technology Park will be used to process all imported fish as well as any fish that are being exported again – as they require a health certificate.
When entering the tropical fish immunity area, there is a certain protocol that includes placing blue mesh booties over one’s shoes and walking through a wind tunnel that is called the “windy pour,” which blows off any undesirable debris clinging to one’s person.
China has a policy that all fish destined for importation must first be quarantined for 21 days. The new Science and Technology Park in Tianjin will be able to handle thousands of ornamental freshwater tropical fish, as well as tropical marine fish and coldwater fish (koi, goldfish, etc.) at any given time.
According to Chiang, “The [aquarium] hobby is not so big right now in China because if you import fish they must spend 21 days in an immunity center. The new Technology Park simplifies fish importation and enables people to import many more fish; it makes importation profitable.”
Besides bringing in Tianjin home-bred fish, the Tianjin immunity center will process marine fish from Indonesia, the Philippines, China’s very own tropical Hainan Island and many other countries. With roughly the same latitude as Puerto Rico and more than 600 species of marine fish, Hainan is just starting to develop its ornamental marine fish trade; it could become a world center in the marine ornamental fish trade, joining the ranks of Indonesia and the Philippines in the ensuing years.
The tropical quarantine systems are organized into sets of tanks stacked three high. The top two tanks are for quarantining fish, while the bottom tank is a sump with biological filter media in it, which helps filter water that is then recirculated back to the top to continue the water cycle. According to Chiang, the tropical fish immunity center has 1,400 sets of quarantine tanks. It is entirely up to the owners of the fish to determine how they want to divvy up their shipments between quarantine tanks.
From a socio-economic standpoint, I found the most fascinating development in the Tianjin Science and Technology Park to be the aquaculture greenhouses that fish importers lease. While the only way to tell the cookie-cutter exteriors apart is through the street addresses (though I’m sure business signage will come in due time), it is the interiors where owners can personalize their operations in any way they see fit.
Groundwater is pumped through a huge succession of centrally housed sand filters and directed to each individual greenhouse once they become operational. On either end of the row-houselike greenhouses are duplexes that can be used for business offices, living space or both. Upstairs on either side is a storage area that can be used to help process fish shipments. The fact that each greenhouse is bookended by such duplex apartments means the principal lessee can sublet a portion of the greenhouse to other fish importers, preferably not one producing the same fish. Greenhouses can purchase fry and grow them to saleable sizes, or they can set up their own independent breeding operations as well as headquarter their business operations out of the greenhouses – again, it is really up to the owners how they want to utilize their space and to what ends.
I was fortunate enough to visit three very different greenhouses. After visiting some of the more utility fish-grow-out greenhouses with their no-frills approach (just basic grow-out tanks, bare walls and wooden gangways) to fish farming, I was taken aback upon first entering what Chiang referred to as the “arowana club.” Also known as the Eastern Long Arowana Breeding Farm, the interior design of the “club” is the brainchild of the owner and good friend of Chiang, Liao Jun.
When first entering Liao Jun’s greenhouse, one sees a decorative wall with a beautiful wooden symbol affixed to it. As soon as you make your way around this wall, you enter an idyllic Shangri-la of gardens, wooden birdcages hanging from bamboo scaffolding, an azure swimming-pool structure with a smaller square pool adjacent to it that will soon be filled with mighty arowana, which Liao Jun raises in tanks on one side of the complex on two floors.
Other personal touches include a dragon head jutting out from one end of the larger pool, a bonsai tree and a smaller container bowl with aquatic plants in it. Liao Jun was very accommodating, a trait I found to be universal, at least among the Chinese people I interacted with on my nine-day trip. He offered Chiang and myself some tea, which I had several small cups of – it wouldn’t be China without a tea break.
The interior of Liao Jun’s greenhouse was much different from the industrial tenor outside. Half the battle of enjoying what you do is enjoying where you work, and Liao Jun has created a kind of feng-shui harmony, whether intended or not, which makes his operation not just a tranquil place to work, but to visit as well.
As more greenhouses become operational; as local home fish breeders discover the new Tianjin Binhai Ornamental Fish Science and Technology Park as a much more convenient market for their fish; as displaced rice farmers (originally bought out) join the local home-fish-breeding ranks, as is hoped; as more and bigger aquarium trade shows debut at the trade center; as aquarium importer-exporters and aquarium supply companies set up offices in the trade center – as all of these aspects of Tianjin’s ornamental fish trade come to fruition – Tianjin will become a household word among fishkeepers the world over.
Beijing Fish Market
One of the placards used to block views of ongoing construction cites a World Trade Organization study about the promising benefits of the ornamental fish trade, especially among developing countries. The figures cited suggest that the current global ornamental fish trade is a more than $4.5-billion-a-year industry, with an annual growth of 8 percent. Additionally, Asian nations supply between 60 and 70 percent of the world’s ornamental fish. This placard goes on to say that the keeping of ornamental fish is “becoming the new fashion consumption of Chinese urban households.”
I got a firsthand glimpse into China’s urban fishkeeping hobby by paying a visit to the Beijing “Fish Market.” Don’t let the term “fish market” throw you; in China, the term refers to an indoor mall-like shopping area with whole sections devoted to specific goods, such as aquarium fish and supplies. The fish market’s floor space is partitioned into aquarium shops, all with glass fronts so that window shoppers can see what’s inside. The shops run the gamut, from small and cluttered to more spacious stores replete with beautiful large setups for purchase. If not for the Chinese proprietors and Chinese writing on price tags, boxes and window fliers, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between some of the stores and their U.S. counterparts, with the only other exception being that even the larger Beijing fish stores would still be tiny in comparison to most local fish stores in the States. Yet each store offered a glimpse into what’s popular among Chinese hobbyists, as well as possible emerging trends in the hobby in China.
Of course, the ever-present arowanas, clown knifefish and motoro stingrays were everywhere, as were koi and goldfish. I also came across fish that were artificially tattooed, a practice considered controversial in the West. There was one marine store, but it had a limited selection; undoubtedly, in the marine area, the hobby in China is still in its infancy.
But my sense is that once places like Tianjin, with its industrialized approach to the ornamental fish trade, really get up to speed, one of their principal growth markets will be to the millions of urban Chinese who want aquariums, freshwater and marine fish, and the supplies needed to keep them.
It was on the top step of the entrance to the trade demonstration center that Nathan Chiang spread open his arms and exclaimed, “You can’t imagine this is for fish.” I couldn’t agree with him more. FAMA
You can view a video of the Tianjin Ornamental Fish Science and Technology Park here