Oriental Express: The fishkeeping industry in China

A career in the the aquatics industry reached its logical conclusion for me recently – I’d take a trip to China. China used to be known for its fancy goldfish, its cheap manufacturing and its poor animal and human rights, so I was intrigued as to what I would find on my virgin Chinese tour.

My destination was the megacity of Guangzhou, the third largest city in China with a population of 14 million, but city boundary meets city urban sprawl with no green belt, and along with its urban districts some estimate the total population in the province to be more like 44 million people.

Bright colours, crowding and chaos. Manufacturing, art and commerce combine in the Chinese aquarium market.

Think Mega City One in the Judge Dredd movies and you’ll get the idea…Roads were often crisscrossed and three levels high, combining to form a super spaghetti junction, or should that be noodle junction, and even our local guide took several attempts and over an hour just to reach the hotel, which we could see just from the road side.

Guangzhou is the global hotspot for aquatics manufacturing, and I wasn’t to be disappointed. Its district of Foshan boasts some 2000 led lighting factories – yes you read it right – 2000, and that’s one district of one city in China. But what of the fish?

One of our contacts who we met up with, Malaysian born Ethan Wong who now lives in Guangzhou, told us of a fish wholesaler, over dinner, who we could visit the next morning. My ears pricked up immediately and the next day my hangover disappeared into mere mild dehydration as the adrenaline kicked in on the taxi ride. I’ve been to dozens of wholesalers over the years but a Chinese ornamental fish wholesaler promised more aquatic fodder than most.

Hundreds of individual aquatic shops and stalls combine to form probably the world’s largest ornamental fish market

The Fish Market

Referred to by Ethan purely as “The Fish Market” our taxi pulled in. Sprawling over several football pitches in area, I was confronted first by some huge landscaping stones, some 10 feet in diameter, followed by the market frontage of some 15 shops and small stalls in a row. The weather was hot, humid and rainy, which would climb to 34C later on that day. On stepping out our cameras steamed up instantly as we were greeted by open fronted aquatic shops spilling out into the street with nets and filter media and filters, and fish…

Fish, amphibians, invertebrates and reptiles are packed in, waiting to be scooped up and sold

Straight away we saw a low tech market stall with live tropical fish in bowls and bags, laid out on the floor. My eyeballs went into hyper speed as I scanned what was there in front of me. I’d seen pictures of “Goldfish Street” in Hong Kong, with aquatic shop after aquatic shop and reminiscent pre-bagged fish, but had I stumbled upon a place even bigger? A fishkeeper’s Mecca or 500 shops of horrors?

Instant aquascaping on sale

The good, the bad and the ugly

Straight away, what was good was the aquascaping. There were shops who purely sold aquatic plants and others who purely sold hardscape for aquascaping. One stall was selling plants on wood, while one not far from that was selling moss growing on mini-landscape rocks. It was a UK aquascaper’s dream. I entered an aquascaping shop with a stunning, probably six foot long aquascape directly in the open doorway, only sadly with a no photography sign on top of it. I’ve read about this before, and am guessing it is being lined up to be entered into an aquascaping competition which requires no previous publication of the tanks which are entered. It was a stunning mix of dark green anubias, moss and ferns, with wood breaking the surface and a lovely use of submerse water lilies. But look to the left and the store had probably a dozen more aquascapes, all of which I would have been happy to call my own, and just to round it off was a Lake Tanganyika aquascape and a cube-shaped reef tank.

The proprietor handed me his business card and told me that he designed the myriad of led and T5 lighting which lit his tanks. Bruce Lee was his name, and a certain Huey Hung logo was on the top of his card. Huey Hung is well known to stalwarts of the discus hobby for its air powered sponge filters, but now it has grabbed the aquascaping bull by both horns and produces lighting, Co2, and soil, as well as filters. This was their Chinese showroom and a fully functioning aquatic shop all rolled into one. I purchased a Chinese text only hardback book I’d never seen before and moved on.

Parrot cichlids were some of the most numerous. Note the tattooed indviduals…

The bad

There was definitely a feel of a big four or five species on sale throughout the market and the fish were more heavily stocked than would ever be allowed or tolerated here in the UK. Arowana, both South American and Asian, Oscars, red tiger and albino, koi carp and giant gourami, but by far and away the most abundant fish on sale were the parrot cichlids.

There were blood parrots, tattooed parrots and the so called “heart parrots” minus their tails as they had been cut off, earlier in their lives. But 90% of the parrot cichlids on sale were a relatively new type of mutant – the King Kong parrot. Always bright red in colour as this is the colour of prosperity in China, the King Kongs were huge – many 8”+, but some hitting a foot in length and were huge red slabs of a fish. Good was that by backcrossing to cichlid species unknown to attain larger size, the King Kong parrot’s bodies were more elongate, less squashed, and both their mouths and skulls resembled something much more normal, and healthy.

Koi were surprisingly abundant, despite the lack gardens in China

Many adorned large nuchal head-humps, like a bright red Flowerhorn, these “Super King Kong Parrots” seemed not to have any of the attitude or territoriality that the superficially similar, one-fish-one-tank Midas cichlids and flowerhorns have. Not that they had a chance – most tanks numbered 100+ adult individuals…And as abundant as the parrot cichlids themselves were the parrot cichlid specific, red colour enhancing foods.

Parrot cichlids are the fish of the moment for the masses in China right now. Size, colour and head bump are everything, and the fish are grown on, en masse in clay ponds in order to achieve both size and colour.

Flowerhorn cichlid

Other cichlids

After the parrots were oscars, thousands of them, all in surprisingly good colour and condition considering they were hundreds to a tiny tank and flank to flank like sardines. Flowerhorns were there but not as abundant, the elevated price acting as a barrier for most. An eye-catching specimen in a shop window was on sale for the equivalent of over £1000, when the average monthly wage is £500 or less in China, and a large chunk of which is sent by workers back to parents.

Peacock bass were next, with several species on show, all young adults of 10” plus. The bare Arowana, stingray, peacock bass, tigerfish tanks the likes of which can be viewed on YouTube are still a big thing over here. Discus were there too, either densely packed into tanks in discus-only shops or pre-bagged on stalls. What would be the eye catching showstoppers in most aquatic stores around the world were completely overshadowed by the sheer mass of millions of other tightly packed, crimson coloured parrots.

Much coveted Asian arowana, or Dragonfish, are said to bring luck and prosperity


I first experienced the asian arowana craze in Singapore in 2007, and I can now report that in 2015, in China, asian arowana are absolutely everywhere. There are arowana ornaments on sale in the airport. Red and gold were the two most popular colours because of their Chinese cultural significance, as well as the dragon moniker. There were big ones, small ones, pre-bagged ones, short bodied ones and many under the submersible colour enhancing strip lights. Either have a small tank packed full of them or mix liberally with some stingrays, giant gourami, peacock bass, clown knives and red tail cats and you’ve got yourself an urban chinese community tank. The tankbuster term seems not to be uttered much in China.

I asked if they still microchipped them and was told that you could specify weather you wanted a chipped fish or not. I moved on to several stores holding 60cm plus Arapaima, arguably the largest freshwater fish in the world, but was shooed away by one store owner who didn’t want me taking pics of them. They didn’t want me taking shots of the black tip reef and whitetip reef sharks on sale either.

Something else I’d seen before was the liking for deformed arowana with bent bodies and kinked spines. Short-bodied Pangasius sanitwongsei were on sale too.

Many species jumped out of their over crowded accommodation. Not all got spotted, and returned…

Finding Nemo

Fish were jumping out of their washing up bowls with regularity and my good deed for the day was to pick up two Koi making their way across the tarmac and put them back into their holding vats. I found Nemo too, squashed and dried out over a drain, a bit like in an alternative ending to the movie.

Albino Thread finned acara, Acarichthys heckeli, were a new find

New fish

The China fish market isn’t really the place to see new fish species as its commercial fish retailing at its most commercial, and anything remotely delicate would keel over and die within minutes of arriving. Stingray colour morphs are taking off big time in the far east, and I saw several tanks full of albino versions of Acarichthys heckelii, the thread finned acara, which I hadn’t seen before. Artificially coloured albino Xenopus toads were a new one on me…

Small cyprinid-looking fish were on sale all over as live food, though I couldn’t get an ID on them. Those poor blighters were more fish than water in their holding tanks, and were sold in carrier bags by weight, not by number. Without any doubt the most packed in fish I have ever, ever seen.

Other “pets” were on sale too, including turtles, cats, and dogs

China certainly put the ornament into “ornamental fish” and this place isn’t for the fishkeeping feint hearted. And don’t get me started on the sale of cats, dogs, terrapins and other animals around the corner.

So were the fish all in a terrible state? Very surprisingly no, apparently due to the incredibly high turnover of fish through the market. The consensus from us Brits however was that if a fish has anything remotely up with it it won’t be on sale long, or even come into contact with medication. Most tanks didn’t even have filtration. And what happens to the fish at night? bagged up, brought inside ready for sale the next morning we were told. If they survive the night that is.   

Despite being treated and packed like sardines, the fish looked largely unscathed



Jeremy Gay

Author of three fishkeeping books and lifelong fishkeeper. Experience includes editor of Practical Fishkeeping magazine, editor of Pet Product Marketing magazine, multi award- winning livestock manager and aquatic store manager.

One thought on “Oriental Express: The fishkeeping industry in China

  • March 15, 2019 at 3:43 pm

    Well written and intereresting. I’m glad you spared us the crueler details. Most of them, at least. Chopped off tails. Yikes.

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