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The Lives They Live: Hooked for life on aquarium fish trade

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Toh Yong Chuan on 18 Apr 2018

The Straits Times

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While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about such people in the series, The Lives They Live.

 

Life is going swimmingly for Mr Pek Leng Choon, but that has not always been the case.

 

The 70-year-old has been a fish trader for 50 years. "Not the kind that you put in your mouth for food, but the kind that you see with your eyes," he said in Mandarin with a laugh.

 

He got into the aquarium fish trade in 1968 after his radio spare parts business failed. Then 21 and newly wed with a newborn son, he decided to return to his village in Lorong Peluang near Nee Soon where he was grew up.

 

His parents were farmers and Mr Pek had a brother and five sisters.

 

Some people in the village were then breeding ornamental fish for export. Instead of breeding fish, he put his experience trading radio spare parts into trading fish.

 

"The principles are the same - look for businesses, look for suppliers, find ways to ship the goods from suppliers to buyers," he said.

 

But he did not have the capital to start the business, so he borrowed $1,000 from another villager.

 

"With the money, I bought a typewriter, a 'James Bond' Samsonite briefcase, an English-Chinese dictionary and a wooden desk," he recalled. "I am still using them, except the typewriter."

 

He named the company Sunny Aquarium. "Some people thought it was my name. It isn't," he said with a laugh.

 

"I chose the name because it sounded nice. Sunny days are better for fish than poor weather and I hoped that my business would rise like the sun," he explained.

 

His first stops were the US Embassy and British High Commission. "I went to the trade promotion department, borrowed the trade directory, looked up the 'aquarium' section and copied as many names and addresses of fish importers as I could."

 

Next, he drew up a price list after discussing with fish breeders. He then mailed the list to the importers, hoping that some would bite.

 

One did.

 

"My first order was from Guam. About $500 worth of fish," he said. His business took off after that, exporting fish to the United States and Europe.

 

But Mr Pek faced his first business hurdle in 1978. That year, the Government acquired the village to build Yishun new town.

 

In 1979, he was offered compensation and resettled his fish farm to Jalan Ulu Sembawang, where he remained for 10 years.

 

He also caught a big break in 1979.

 

A Swedish friend who had spent nine months in Mr Pek's fish farm to learn the trade a year earlier travelled around Europe with Mr Pek. For about a month, they visited customers and business prospects.

 

"The trip helped me expand the business in Europe. It is still my top export market today," he said.

 

In 1988, Mr Pek had to move his farm again when the Government acquired the land for development.

 

He was allocated a small factory space about the size of a five-room Housing Board flat in Ubi. "It was so small. I was next to car workshops."

 

But he moved to a bigger space in 1991 when he won a bid for a piece of land in Lim Chu Kang, right at the edge of the Sungei Buloh wetlands.

 

He also expanded his business overseas the same year. He started a fish breeding farm in Bogor, Indonesia, exporting the fish he bred there into Singapore for re-export. The farm is still around and he expanded it a few years ago.

 

But Mr Pek has also tasted several business failures.

 

In 1997, he accepted as payment a 10-year lease to run a French creditor's fish farm in Nice. After a few months, Mr Pek cut his losses and wrote off the $300,000 debt - his biggest business loss.

 

A marine fish farm he set up in Bali in 1998 was sold six years later at a loss of about $150,000.

 

A shop he set up in Guangzhou, China, in 2002 to sell aquatic plants was closed two years later with losses of about $150,000.

 

"This is part of doing business. This is what I have learnt as a businessman - there are ups and downs," he said matter-of-factly.

 

When the 20-year lease of Mr Pek's fish farm expired in 2011, the Singapore Land Authority extended it for six years, in two three-year blocks. The lease just got extended for another three years this year.

 

The farm, with an area of about 2ha, or the size of 3½ football fields, is divided into areas for breeding, stocking, quarantine and packing. It also houses workers' quarters and a house where Mr Pek lives with his wife, son and three grandchildren, who help run the farm.

 

After exporting fish overseas for about 50 years, Mr Pek noted that tastes have not really changed.

 

"The Europeans prefer small fish like goldfish, guppies, killies," he said. "These fish are more affordable compared to koi fish or arowanas."

 

While the aquarium fish trade is profitable, he laments that it has lost some of the sheen.

 

In 2006, Singapore exported about $100 million worth of ornamental fish. It dipped to $63.1 million in 2016, according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore's annual report last year.

 

Mr Pek said ornamental fish export is a high-volume, low-margin trade, and high land and labour costs have made fish breeders and exporters here less competitive than those in nearby countries.

 

"Each fish that I sell, I earn only a few cents," he said.

 

Mr Pek is aware his fish export business is running on borrowed time. "I do not know how long the lease here will be extended," he said.

 

Asked if he saw himself as successful, he said, using a Chinese idiom:"I fall short of the best but I do better than the worst."

 

He added: "I am not the biggest or the most famous aquarium fish exporter in Singapore. Qian Hu is the most famous because it is a listed company. I am also not the richest. Some of the others, they own big bungalows and Mercedes-Benz luxury cars. I don't own any of these."

 

There used to be about 20 aquarium fish exporters around two decades go, he said, but now there are fewer than 10 active ones.

 

He said: "I am one of the oldest still in the trade after 50 years. If being resilient is a measure of success, I think I am doing okay."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.