Book review: enter the dragon fish, the world’s most coveted aquarium treasure

Emily Voigt’s quest to understand the ‘morbid, destructive’ allure of a fish that can change hands for US$150,000 a time took her to 15 countries and resulted in a book that’s part true-crime yarn and part pop-science explainer

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2016, 12:44pm

The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish

by Emily Voigt


3.5/5 stars

The arowana or “bonytongue” borders on ugly, but looks can be deceiving – the coveted fish, which can be found for sale in Hong Kong’s “goldfish street” in Mong Kok, can sell for up to US$150,000 a time. In her in-depth look at the world’s most valuable aquarium fish, journalist Emily Voigt observes that its stunning appearance is intimately entwined with its value.

“At maturity, the primitive predator reaches the length of a samurai sword, about two to three feet, and takes on a multihued sheen. A pair of whiskers juts from its lower lip, and two gauzy pectoral fins extend from its sides, suggesting a dragon in flight,” Voigt writes, adding that the likeness has spawned the belief that the fish brings prosperity.

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Long keen to write a Jane Goodall-style wildlife epic, Voigt tracks the dragon fish, as it is also called, through the Bronx and Singapore, then embarks on a quest to find it in the wild. Cue forays to some of the earth’s last tropical wildernesses in Borneo and Myanmar, before she heads to the Brazilian Amazon.

During her 15-nation trek, Voigt examines the crimes linked to the arowana, which can be vile. Some breeders have been murdered by thieves. She cites a horrible stabbing in Malaysian; even Singapore, which boasts one of the world’s lowest crime rates, once reported four dragon fish heists in a week. “One thief punched out an old woman who chased him as he made off with her prized fish in a sloshing bucket. He was sentenced to three years in prison and 12 strokes of a wet cane,” Voigt writes.

In the United States, because of a strange old law, just handling an arowana can land you in trouble – the Asian variety is banned outright, which partly explains Voigt’s original interest. In 2009, while researching a National Public Radio story on exotic pets, she met pet detective John Fitzpatrick who tracked down arowana smugglers.

Fitzpatrick’s pursuit through the streets of New York made her think. “At the time, I still thought of pet fish as one step up from potted plants,” she writes. After meeting Fitzpatrick, a man she casts as “a natural-born storyteller”, she delved deeper and became intrigued by a creature that ranks among the earth’s most ancient living fish.

Other Americans develop a morbid, destructive obsession. Look no further than the Wall Street banker who bursts into tears after his arrest for arowana possession, confessing he finds its dark-alley appeal irresistible.

Whether the arowana needs protecting from opportunists hooked on its dubious charms is moot, because many members of the species survive in high-security farms in Southeast Asia. Voigt’s analysis raises the question of whether in future, the animal can be “rewilded” – extracted from the farms back into rivers.

Either way, as her guide Heiko Bleher says controversially, the Asian variety’s endangered status may just fuel attraction and exploitation. If so, the mainstream conservation movement has made an epic mistake that sheds light on its failure to save other species that are not commercially farmed: a galling thought.

Another telling ecological point that The Dragon Behind the Glass makes is the state of the Amazon. “It always amazes me when people say they’re taking an Amazon cruise,” says Bleher, and highlights just how deforested and eroded the river’s main trunk has become in just one generation.

Voigt traces our urge to own special fish back to antiquity. The first folk to invest heavily in the field were those masters of conspicuous consumption, the Romans. At the dawn of the first century BC, fish ponds became hip among the elite.

“The Romans’ all-time favourite aquatic pet, that unapologetic phallus of a fish the eel, began to command outrageous prices – to say nothing of the jewellery the fish wore,” Voigt writes.

Pet fish became such a sign of extravagance that the statesman Cicero sardonically dubbed the rich “fish-pond owners”. When the owners’ decadent empire crumbled, so did the ponds, and their spoilt incumbents were set free.

Aquarium culture’s big surge came much later in the Victorian age, when nature-minded sorts grew bored of staring at ferns and along came the British aquarium craze of the 1850s. Droves of Brits flocked to the shore, tools in hand, to capture the inhabitants of tidal rock pools. “Soon sea anemones were the hot fashion of the moment, with the writer George Henry Lewes joking that they were only slightly less troublesome to keep than a hippopotamus.”

Lewes was right. Sustaining captive sea life was tough. By the 1860s, nine out of every 10 aquariums were abandoned, but then the Germans took over, focusing on freshwater fish.

Asia’s arowana cult eventually surfaced in 20th-century Taiwan, spreading across Asia despite – or because of – resistance from China. In the 1980s, when Beijing still regarded pet-keeping as a bourgeois aberration, Taiwanese society suddenly co-opted the arowana, branding it the ultimate status-symbol fish.

“Was Taiwan thumbing its nose at the Chinese Communist Party? Or celebrating its Chinese cultural heritage? Or was it just that Asians love fish?” Voigt asks.

Based in New York City, Voigt specialises in science and culture. Her stories have run everywhere from The New York Times to that ecology hub, Mother Jones magazine. Her adventurous 336-page book, which reads like a cross between a travelogue, a true-crime yarn and a work of popular science, is mostly engrossing.

Voigt ends her chase with a surprising bit of nostalgia. Sometimes, she writes, from the vantage of her city apartment, she notices a dewy cube of greenery and in her mind is whisked back to the wilderness – the murky straits of her freakish, coveted prey, which you sense has come to mean as much to her as the breeders she features, despite its appearance that she sums up as “gnarled visage, petulant pout, and worm-like barbels”.

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The animal’s magnetism partly stems from its menace. Search for “arowana eats duckling” online and you will see just how mean a fish that dates back to the dinosaurs can be.

If you are tempted to get involved with the precious predator, beware of specimens dyed with artificial food colouring used in cherry sodas. Corrupted by commodification, the arowana is a phenomenal oddity, whose strangest trait remains its value.

Readers may wonder whether, like fabled Dutch tulip bulbs, the arowana is cruising for a commercial crash, but the fish may well have too strong a grip on the human imagination. Its stubborn connection with dragons looks set to ensure it retains its mystique – its power over people that goes beyond reason.