Love of aquariums leads to business

Law school graduate is seduced by the beauty of watery displays, and finds fulfilment as an aquascaper, sharing his work in a coffee shop

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 5:50am

Li Lei's life took an unexpected turn after a visit to a goldfish market three years ago. A law-school graduate, Li was enjoying a decent income and bright career prospects while working as a case manager for the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (Cieta) in Beijing. Then he spotted a beautifully designed aquarium, and he quickly became fascinated with freshwater "aquascaping". Li quit his job, sold his apartment and opened a small coffee shop to showcase aquariums. In 2011, he proved his skills as an underwater landscaper by winning an international award for the first aquarium he ever designed. Li, 33, recently spoke about his aquarium obsession.

What attracted you to aquascaping for the first time?

In 2010, I happened to visit a goldfish market in Beijing and saw in a shop an aquarium featuring waterweeds, rocks and driftwood. I was shocked. The aquarium was about 1.2 metres long, much bigger and much more beautiful than any aquarium I had ever seen in restaurants or in people's homes. It looked so natural, bringing back my memories of the mountain village [in Shaanxi ] where I grew up. I felt it was something that I'd long been looking for. I could not get it out of my head after going home.

A month later, I bought my first set of aquascape equipment for 8,000 yuan [HK$10,000].

What are the most interesting and challenging parts of aquascaping?

To create an artful and vibrant underwater world is a great pleasure to me. Of course, it can also be a time-consuming and physically demanding job. In aquascaping, waterweeds play a key role. For example, it would take two to three days to plant waterweeds one by one in an aquarium 1.2 or 1.5 metres long. As the waterweeds grow every day, you have to trim them regularly to shape them in the desired way.

Sometimes, I just sit on the sofa, watching my aquariums for hours and hours. My wife sometimes teases me, saying I should go to sleep with my aquariums.

Where do your aquascape materials come from, and how does the ecosystem in an aquarium work?

Some of the waterweeds I use are brought by my friends from Japan. The others are bought at the local goldfish market. Rocks are from Yingde in Guangdong, where they are known for their beautiful texture. Other things like driftwood, goldfish and other plants are all optional, and I purchase them locally.

In an aquarium, we lay mud and fertiliser at the bottom and hang a lighting system above it to provide nutrients and light to the plants. Depending on the number of plants and fish, the aquascape may also require carbon-dioxide supplementation. Shrimp are necessary as well to consume unwanted algae.

Your first aquarium won you a prize at the 2011 International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest in Japan. What was your inspiration for that piece?

I ranked 28th in the world and was runner-up among all Chinese competitors. I reproduced what I remembered about my hometown village in a 1.2-metre-long and half-metre-wide aquarium, using waterweeds, rocks and driftwood to mimic the hills and valley I once played in.

Can you tell us a bit more about your life before getting involved in aquascaping?

I come from a village in Shaanxi province. My father passed away when I graduated from university in 2002. As the eldest son in the family, I had to take up the graphite-mining business my father used to work on. But I really hated attending dinner parties and drinking with business partners and government officials. And I also felt bad when some local officials asked us for bribes when we applied for administrative approvals from them.

But this is very common practice in a small place like ours. It was the main reason I came to Beijing to study law.

Upon graduation, I was lucky enough to be recruited by Cieta. It's an enviable job in others' eyes. But the routine work and high pressure made me feel that I was in the wrong place. I always wanted to do things differently, and I'm not a very organised person.

Many people take aquascaping as a hobby. Some make it a business by selling aquariums to others. Why did you give up your job and sell your apartment to open an aquarium-themed coffee shop?

Everyone in the world dreams of living the way he really wants. I was one of the lucky ones and found a life I truly loved, so why not go for it? Maybe some people think I am out of my mind. But now I feel that I am getting the most out of my life.

I sold my apartment and bought this shop for 1.7 million yuan last year. I call it True North Cabin, referencing the right direction in which my life is heading. I designed every part of this 40-square-metre place, where I showcase about 20 aquariums that I've designed.

I never wanted to make a fortune at it. What I want is a lifestyle. I made some calculations: I need to sell six to seven cups of coffee every day to cover the cost of electricity, water and property-management fees. Now I am actually earning slightly more than that.

Did your family support you?

My wife is a big supporter of me. She doesn't mind living in a rented apartment with me. We don't have plans to have children. But we adopted three stray cats and one dog. And we don't need to buy cars. I ride a bicycle from home to my shop every day.

Actually, my mum opposed my choice strongly when I told her I was going to resign. But in the end, she understood, as she saw I was unhappy with my previous job.

What is your life like now?

I spend most of my time in the shop, from 10am to midnight or even later. When there are no customers, I clean my aquariums, surf the internet, learn Japanese or just have a drink with my neighbours.

With this shop, I have the chance to get to know a lot of interesting people. There's a customer who comes from the United States and is a chief executive of an information-technology company. He taught me how to make a popular American drink called an "infusion", which soaks fruits and spices in vodka or other liquors to produce a special favour. I am thinking of making it a signature drink in my shop.


Li Lei spoke to Celine Sun