How much is that bald guinea pig in the window?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 March, 2004, 12:00am

One year on from Sars, business is better than ever in the city's pet shops

Business could not have been worse at pet shops this time last year. The Sars outbreak scared many Hongkongers into getting rid of their pets and the fear that animals might transmit the virus meant few people were in the market for cats and dogs, let alone anything more exotic.

Now, business has clearly returned to normal along Tung Choi Street in Mongkok, and there is a thriving trade in more than just the usual puppies, kittens, hamsters and fish.

There is a range of bizarre creatures on offer in the shops along the street - commonly known as 'pet street'. They range from string-like albino snakes and hairless guinea pigs to oversized goldfish.

In the Lucky Aquarium shop, owner Tsoi Mau-wing looks at a large red oranda goldfish - or pin day kam, meaning 'gold everywhere' - not much smaller than his head.

'It takes about two years for it to grow to that size and weighs about a catty and a half,' he says.

'But it's not just about size; we also look at their shapes, colours and characters,' says Mr Tsoi.

As a child, he once lived near a stream and caught freshwater fish and shrimps for fun.

Law Kwok-chau, a regular customer, says he likes the larger fish because more knowledge and skill is required to look after them.

'It takes years of experience to keep them alive and healthy-looking, so it's a challenge,' he says. 'You can't teach someone how to adjust the water or what mix of food to feed them.'

Apart from goldfish - believed to have originated in China - there are all sorts of other aquatic creatures for sale, including mini-lobsters, 'watermelon' crabs and coral fish of all imaginable colours.

Exotic sea fish have gained popularity in the past 10 years because of a drop in prices, says Alex Hong Wong-fat, owner of the 20-year-old Ocean World Aquarium.

And the source of supply has widened along with more advanced transport, he says.

'When I started, we only bought fish from nearby countries like the Philippines and Indonesia. Now we have fish from Africa,' Mr Hong says. A favourite is the clownfish - the star of the Disney hit movie Finding Nemo.

The small, orange and white-striped fish have always been popular because they are cute, bright, and cheap, with a starting price of only $10, he says.

Among the fluffier terrestrial creatures such as rabbits, hamsters, cats and dogs on offer, the hairless guinea pigs look out of place.

'They come from Canada and are artificially bred to look like that,' says a woman in Pet Shop 188, who identified herself only as Miss Lau. The shop keeps about three of the bald creatures in stock at a time.

'It's usually adults who buy them for their novelty,' she says.

Spiders, tortoises, snakes and lizards can also be found in some shops but business is not too good, says the owner of Urban Jungle.

The shop owner explains that the reptiles are expensive - most cost over $1,000 - and they can live for many years.

Once people buy them, they need to return to the store for food and sometimes equipment, he says.

Behind him are boxes of white mice grouped according to their age and size - food for the reptiles.

The shop's part-time staff, a 22-year-old man with dyed reddish hair, says he likes keeping reptiles as pets because they are different.

'Dogs and cats are so common. Everyone wants to have things that no one else has,' he says.