Asia's love of koi

by AFP/Martin Abbugao, May 20, 2008 | Destinations: Hong Kong / Malaysia / Singapore / China

SINGAPORE, May 9, 2008 - Koi, an ornamental fish which enthusiasts liken to a moving work of art, are gaining popularity across Asia thanks to changing lifestyles and increasingly sophisticated tastes, experts say.

Asian fish connoisseurs treasure koi -- domesticated varieties of the common carp -- as Europeans would a painting by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, they say.

"I look at a Picasso and I say it's a child's painting... but people will pay hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for it. For Asians, koi is like living art... it's like poetry in motion," said Richard Tan, chairman of the committee that organised the First Asia Cup Koi Show in Singapore this month.

Hundreds thronged the inaugural Asia-wide koi competition to catch a glimpse of the fish from some of the world's best-known breeders and dealers.

Koi breeding first became popular in Japan but the love affair with the fish is spreading across Asia, its followers say.

"Koi-keeping is a growing fraternity in Asia," said Tan, president of the Singapore Koi Club.

"It is a growing fraternity in the sense that more and more people in Asia are beginning to keep koi.... China has become a very big buyer too," Tan told AFP.

"It's catching up in Southeast Asia big time. Thailand is one of the biggest buyers of high quality Japanese koi. So is the Philippines. So is Indonesia."

Europe and the United States are the world's biggest buyers of koi in terms of volume, but the most expensive variety is sold in Asia because Asians have a better appreciation of their value, experts say.

"The Western countries have not reached the depth of appreciation (for koi) as in Asia, just like we have not reached the depth of appreciation for oil paintings like those of Picasso," said Tan, an oil industry executive who keeps koi for a hobby.

Beyond being a hobbyist's fish, koi have other benefits, said Masao Kato, Japan chairman of the Zen Nippon Airinkai, a group dedicated to promoting the koi hobby worldwide.

"Koi swimming slowly and gracefully in the water provide self-healing and peaceful feelings to a person, and koi never fight among themselves," he said in a message to the Singapore koi show.
In a sign the hobby is gaining more adherents outside Japan, the "grand champion" at the First Asia Cup Koi Show in Singapore was a plump, red and white beauty owned by Thai businessman Tepsit Rojratanadumrong.

Koi owned by Malaysians and Indonesians also took top honours.

"I'm very happy. I will take my koi back and show it in Thailand," Tepsit, who owns Thailand's biggest koi farm, told AFP.

Tepsit said he bought the newly crowned champion three years ago from the Narita Koi Farm in Japan for the price of a Mercedes-Benz car.

His grand champion could fetch 10-15 million yen (95,000-143,000 US dollars) at current market prices, or even more, industry experts said.

Judging in a koi contest is similar to a beauty pageant but the criteria differ, said Tan.

While judges in a Miss Universe pageant sit in front, the koi must be viewed directly from above.

"In a beauty contest, you want the lady to look slim and tall.... In judging the fish, you want a plump-looking koi. You don't want a skinny koi," Tan said.

Judges also look at the quality of the koi's colour patterns -- red, white, black and yellow -- which must be evenly spread. It should also be sparkling, smooth and without blemish.

Keeping koi is a hobby for some and an investment for others.

For Tan, it has been a hobby for the past 28 years, while Tepsit started keeping koi as a hobby five years ago and grew it into an enterprise.

Tan said the most expensive koi sold to Asia outside Japan cost around 15 million yen, while the most expensive ever may have been between 50 million and 100 million yen sold to Japanese companies during the booming 1980s.

Owning a prized koi "is a status symbol. It's like the English keeping hunting dogs and horses," Tan said.

Out of 500,000 koi bred in a farm, only around 50 are selected for competition after two years, while the rest are sold to hobbyists at affordable prices, he said.

"That's why it's so expensive and so exclusive," Tan added.

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