Unable to travel, some young Singaporeans turn to aquascaping in fish tanks as a different way to escape

Jason Toh, owner of That Aquarium, said that more younger people have taken up aquascaping after stay-home curbs ended in June. — TODAY pic
Jason Toh, owner of That Aquarium, said that more younger people have taken up aquascaping after stay-home curbs ended in June. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Nov 1 — Aquarium shops, once mainly patronised by older men, have been seeing more hobbyists in their 20s and 30s patronising them since June. Unable to travel abroad, this younger set of customers are finding beauty and serenity in creating underwater gardens.

Older men tended to leave these shops with bags of colourful gravel, plastic ornaments and trendy fish such as the Luohan — better known as the flower horn fish — or the Arowana, the most expensive aquarium fish then.

As the demographics shifted, the shopping bags of the younger customers are filled with items such as rocks, wood and aquatic plants. The aquarium “gardens” are sometimes inhabited by fish, shrimps or snails.

Aquascaping, short for aquatic landscaping, is appealing to a growing band of young enthusiasts who enjoy constructing underwater gardens with natural materials in the comfort of their own homes.

Jason Toh, 56, owner of That Aquarium, who has stores in Changi, Yishun and Clementi, said that 70 per cent of his new customers since the circuit breaker period have been hobbyists in their 20s and 30s. More surprisingly, about half of them are women.

The circuit breaker happened in April and May when people had to stay home and activities were restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Toh said: “Aquascaping used to be an ‘uncle’ hobby but not anymore. Now, they can design their tanks with different plants, rocks or wood.”

He added that the underwater elements depend on the individual’s experience, budget and desired aesthetic.

Agreeing, Sabrina Song, 30, who runs Capricorn Aquarium at Pasir Ris Farmway with her parents, said that she has seen a 30 per cent increase in customers, most of whom are aged between 20 and 40.

The appeal of aquascaping

With travel restrictions putting a halt to holiday plans, Singaporeans have more time to indulge in hobbies — and aquascaping seems to have gained traction.

The owner of Nanyang Aquarium in Yishun, who wants to be known only as Yong as he prefers to keep a low profile, said that fish tanks have been flying off the shelves since the circuit breaker.

“It’s a hobby that requires basic knowledge and creativity,” he said.

Novice aquarists have to know the basics of water chemistry, fish and plant nutrition and the cycling of an aquarium, which are essential to a healthy aquascape.

It is not an expensive hobby, Toh said, adding that S$50 is enough to buy a tank, a water filter, special lighting and aquatic plants.

And as most aquarists keep fishes, snails or shrimps in their tanks, these creatures require low commitment and are less emotionally connected to the “owners” as compared to pets such as cats, dogs or rabbits.

“For example with dogs, they need to be taken on walks, but for fishes, aquarists need only to maintain the tank once a week and feed the fishes at least once a day.

“Now with advanced technology, they can even buy auto-feeders so they don’t even need to feed them daily the machine will do it,” Toh said.

Song said that many like the challenge of aquascaping, which usually comes in the form of getting the right water conditions for the aquatic plants and animals to thrive.

One such plant, which has a reputation for being difficult to grow and requires optimal water conditions is the tissue culture plant — also called the flamingo plant.

“We brought in three shipments of this plant in the last two months and they were sold out within hours. No aquarist here has successfully grown this plant so far so it becomes a challenge for them,” she added.

The rising interest in aquascaping has prompted a Singapore aquarist named Little Ong to start a series of workshops on the basics of creating and maintaining miniature aquascapes.

Little Ong (centre) runs jarrarium-making workshops. His classes are fully booked for the next month-and-a-half. — TODAY pic
Little Ong (centre) runs jarrarium-making workshops. His classes are fully booked for the next month-and-a-half. — TODAY pic

His workshops, held every fortnight in the last two months and are limited to six participants each session, have been fully booked each time.

The 49-year-old creative director said: “I find it to be really therapeutic to keep a planted tank and just watch the fishes or the shrimps inside. Just maintaining them puts me in a very calm state of mind and I thought that it may be very helpful to many people.”

He added that aquascaping is a lot more than tending to underwater plants.

“You are planning and designing a whole aquatic garden so it’s really interesting because you don’t just watch your plants grow, you watch all those aquatic creatures grow with it.

“And the more effort you put into it, in planting and maintaining it, the more beautiful it becomes. I feel like there is a rewarding aspect that’s very immediate,” Ong said.

A piece of living art

Kelly Pereira, who attended Ong’s aquascaping class, said that she enjoyed gardening during the circuit breaker and found out about aquascaping during a visit to a plant nursery.

Hobbyist Kelly Pereira says that watching planted tanks help her deal with anxiety. — TODAY pic
Hobbyist Kelly Pereira says that watching planted tanks help her deal with anxiety. — TODAY pic

“As someone who suffers from anxiety, I find aquascaping calming and it is an avenue to focus on something other than work,” the 38-year-old jobs and skills analyst said.

Similarly, freelance music instructor Muhammad Faiz Yunus, 32, said that he picked up aquascaping after he passed by an aquarium shop during the circuit breaker period and saw aquatic plants that he liked.

The father of three children aged between three weeks old and two years old, said that the benefit of keeping an aquatic garden is that it is contained to the fish tank, which he keeps on his kitchen counter, and out of his children’s reach.

“If I were to keep cats as pets, my children might be allergic to its fur so I’d rather keep fishes. So far, I’ve never heard of anyone being allergic to fishes,” Faiz quipped.

Singapore Institute of Management undergraduate Joel Soh, 24, said that creating a good ecosystem requires many elements, which he learned to perfect through trial and error.

“It took me two months to get the water temperature and nitrate level right — it was like a science experiment. Once I got it right, it looked like a piece of living art.” — TODAY

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