Scales of fortune

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2007, 12:00am

The HK$300,000 Donald Tsang Yam-kuen paid to have a koi pond built at Government House after taking office as chief executive two years ago raised some eyebrows. But that outlay merely elicits smiles from members of the Hong Kong Koi Club; HK$300,000 is a mere drop in the bucket for serious fish fanciers.

Keeping koi can be a costly undertaking. Enthusiasts easily pay tens of thousands of dollars for one fish. And then there's the cost of maintaining a pond.

Textiles manufacturer Eddie Law She-guan started out with a simple fish tank in his flat, but eventually built a seven-tonne pond on the roof. As his interest grew, the koi fancier learned of a group of enthusiasts who were maintaining their own ponds in the New Territories. 'I was told the Koi Club is like a secret organisation,' says Law, who joined 11 years ago and is now a co-director. 'Not many people know about it.'

The club lists some prominent members, including City Chain owner C.K. Wong and legislator Frederick Fung Kin-kee. Tsang has also attended some club events, although he isn't a member.

All koi - short for nishikigoi, or ornamental carp - are the same species of carp, but fanciers group them into distinct varieties, the most popular being the kohaku, taisho and showa. A popular saying among koi keepers is that the hobby begins and ends with kohaku, a white-scaled variety with a deep red pattern running from head to tail. They can live up to 100 years if kept in natural ponds and grow to a metre long.

Anyone can buy tosai or pond-quality koi at their local fish store. However, fanciers such as Law often make trips to Japan, where koi breeding is a billion-dollar industry, to get the most beautiful varieties. The club plans another visit this autumn to tour koi farms certified by Zen Nippon Airinkai (ZNA), the world authority on koi. With members hoping to visit five farms each day, it's hardly a leisure outing.

The average Japanese koi fetches at least HK$120,000, but wealthy fanciers often pay much more for an especially captivating specimen or one that they believe will bring luck. Serious koi keepers who compete in shows pay more than HK$1 million for fish from important Japanese bloodlines. That's no mean investment, and the only reward for winning at a koi show is a trophy and bragging rights, says Aaron Lit Ying-yeung, one of two Hongkongers certified to be an assistant judge at ZNA shows.

Winners of the All Japan Show - the World Cup of koi shows - have been offered enormous sums for their champion fish. A fancier bid as much as US$1 million for the kohaku that won last year's grand prize, although his offer was declined.

'These fish are a man's fortune. They're his luck,' says Lit. 'You never sell your luck to anyone.' An advertising agency owner who has raised koi for 20 years, Lit recently had a 60cm kohaku place first in ts class at a local competition.

Enthusiasts also spare little expense to construct ponds for their living jewels, as the koi are sometimes called. Koi Club founder Ng Cheung-fat's ponds in the New Territories include an air conditioned enclosure covering several hundred square feet for his most valuable fish.

Part of the reason koi are so highly prized is that they're a symbol of prosperity among the Chinese - the word for carp sounds like that for profit , and the word for fish sounds like that for plenty. In Japan, koi are symbols of love and friendship for similar reasons. And koi ponds feature prominently in measures to maintain good fung shui.

However, Koi Club president John Chan Kwok-keung says members' interest in the fish has little to do with symbols of wealth. 'Anyone can raise koi,' he says. 'You can buy a young fish for less than HK$100 that could grow to be a grand champion.' The Japanese word for such a fish is tatekoi, or 'a fish with potential', and finding one is part of the challenge of raising koi.

Chan, who is Hong Kong's other ZNA-certified assistant judge, says the difference between an average koi and a potential grand champion lies in the size of the fish and the colour and pattern of its scales. A champion kohaku, for instance, will have a balanced crisp red pattern on a snow white background.

The owner of Harbour Koi Farms, Danny Ngai Man-fai, says his customers include long-time enthusiasts and those who are just starting. Beginners usually buy fish that are less than a year old, whereas more experienced koi keepers will buy fish that are about two years old. The basic patterns on koi will stop changing about the age of three.

A female koi may hatch more than 100,000 eggs and the breeder will sort through them four times in the first months to cull those deemed inferior. Those culled from the fry will be fed to other fish, and those culled as tosai may be sold to aquarium shops.

Demand for high-quality koi exceeds what breeders can produce, and Ngai, who raises his own varieties from stock imported from top farms in Japan, says he has constructed another two farms in Guangzhou to meet clients' needs.

Who has Hong Kong's most expensive fish? Koi Club members are characteristically close- mouthed but agree that it isn't the chief executive. Tsang's fish, estimated to cost between HK$10,000 and HK$50,000 each, are at the low end of what a serious collector would pay.

Tsang says his favourite varieties are the highly valued kohaku, the sanke, which has white skin with a red and black pattern, and the tancho, another white-skinned fish with a red spot on its forehead named after the Japanese crane, which has similar colouring.

'I can unclutter my mind and relieve work pressure by simply admiring and feeding them,' the chief executive says of his hobby. 'They always give me a sense of tranquility. And, of course, they never talk back.'