With exacting precision, the surgeon inserted the scalpel above the eyeball and cut out a snotty deposit of fatty tissue. The routine eye-lift was nearly complete when suddenly the patient awoke, suffocating, and began to flop about on the table. The audience gasped. Knowing time was of the essence, the surgeon scooped up the patient in his arms, raced across the stage, and dropped her into a tank of water. She revived. Because she was a fish.
Yes, fish eye-lifts exist. As do fin jobs and tail tucks. The operating theater was a mall in Jakarta, Indonesia, where a pet expo was under way. As for the patient, she survived, her formerly droopy eyes now bright and perky.
A good thing, too, as this was no ordinary goldfish but rather an Asian arowana, the world’s most expensive aquarium denizen, rumored to sell for as much as $300,000.
In Chinese, the creature is known as lóng yú, the dragon fish, for its sinuous body plated with large scales as round and shiny as coins. At maturity, the primitive predator reaches the length of a samurai sword, about two to three feet, and can be red, gold or green. A pair of whiskers juts from its chin, and its back half ripples like the paper dragons in a Chinese New Year parade. This resemblance has spawned the belief that the fish brings good luck and prosperity — that it will even commit suicide by vaulting from its tank, sacrificing its life to save its owner.
Protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Asian arowana cannot legally be brought into the United States as a pet, though a black market thrives from New York to Los Angeles. As early as the 1990s, one Wall Street banker broke down in tears when authorities confiscated the illegal pet fish whose dark-alley appeal he couldn’t resist.
More recently, in 2012, a smuggler landed behind bars at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, the same federal prison that once housed Gambino crime-family godfather John Gotti Jr. and al Qaeda member Najibullah Zazi, mastermind of a plot to blow up the New York subway system.
Overseas, however, the species is an openly coveted commodity in a legitimate luxury market. Virtually depleted from the wild, Asian arowana are bred on high-security farms in Southeast Asia and injected with traceable microchips. Many of these facilities have nested walls, watchtowers and dogs that prowl the perimeters at night to protect against marauding fish bandits.
Singapore, which boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the world, once suffered four arowana heists in a single week. One thief punched out an elderly woman as he made off with her prized fish in a sloshing bucket.
In Malaysia, five arowana stolen from a woman’s house were reportedly worth more than all her other possessions combined. Meanwhile, in a shocking act of violence, a 31-year-old aquarium shop owner was stabbed to death and nearly beheaded — just for his fish.
Despite this dark criminal underbelly, the larger picture of the hobby looks less like the illegal drug trade and more like Manhattan’s overheated art scene, complete with record-breaking prices, anonymous buyers, stolen specimens, unsavory dealers and even clever fakes.
In 2009, 10 rare albino arowana traveled via police escort to the Aquarama International Fish Competition in Singapore — the aquatic equivalent of the Westminster Dog Show — where armed guards stood watch to prevent anyone from adding poison to the tanks.
The breeder of these ghostly mutants, a Malaysian entrepreneur named Alan Teo, claimed that a prominent member of the Chinese Communist Party had recently bought one for $300,000. He said another had sold to a Las Vegas casino baron who requested it be shipped to Canada, where, unlike in the United States, the species is legal. A third belonged to a Taiwanese plastics magnate who made his fortune manufacturing toothbrush bristles.
“Some people think it’s just rumor, but it’s true,” Teo said of his unlikely tale, holding up his hands to demonstrate how they had trembled the day he installed an albino arowana in the private chambers of the Sultan of Johor — a man notorious for having allegedly murdered a golf caddie who snickered when he missed a hole.
Alas, verifying who paid what for which fish is like authenticating the inflated prices that art dealers routinely report — all but impossible.
“To be fair, not all arowana cost that much,” admits “Kenny the Fish,” an eccentric Singaporean kingpin at the center of the glamorous world of Asian aquaculture.
A chain-smoking millionaire notorious for posing nude behind strategically placed aquatic pets, the Fish’s real name is Kenny Yap, and he is the executive chairman of an ornamental fish farm so lucrative that it’s listed on Singapore’s main stock exchange. The national press once dubbed him one of the city’s most eligible bachelors and called for him to host a spinoff of Donald Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice.”
As Yap explains, most dragon fish sell around the age of 6 months when they’re roughly the length of a pencil and typically fetch $1,000 to $2,000 apiece.
“People want to rear them from small to cultivate a certain kind of relationship,” he says, noting the fish can live many decades — no one really knows how long, though they often die prematurely as pets.
n the past, Yap has told the press that an arowana can be trained like a dog or cat to “stay by the owner’s side when he is unhappy.” (Never mind that it’s confined to a tank.) The flip side to this intimacy is that the fish is prone to temper tantrums and can behave “like a spoiled child.”
Willie Si, otherwise known as “Dr. Arowana,” the father of fish plastic surgery, agrees. A Singaporean car mechanic, Si placed a classified ad in the early ’90s seeking “defective and damaged arowanas” and then set about tinkering with these fixer-uppers, snipping their tails to look like chrysanthemums. Eventually, he pioneered the use of diamond-cutting tools to remove fungal growths from fish eyeballs.
Bad blood over botched surgeries ultimately caused Si to close shop and restrict himself to phone consultations. When clients call worried that their arowana isn’t eating, he asks them to consider what they might have said to inadvertently insult their fish.
“Don’t panic,” Si advises. “Talk to the fish. Say you made a mistake. The next day should be OK.”
You might expect a creature that’s so hot among feng shui enthusiasts — and reputedly prized by yakuza, members of Japan’s extensive organized crime syndicates — to have a deep history of mythological significance in Asian cultures. Not so. Just a few decades back, the species was an ordinary fish that locals ate for dinner.
Only as its swampy jungle habitat began to vanish, and an international trade ban seemed to reinforce the perception of its rarity, did the species transform into a status symbol and luxury commodity around 1980. Now the idea of eating the Asian arowana is preposterous to most.
Still, rumors persist that Chinese tycoons pay huge sums to dine on the endangered species. Helping investigate these claims, an interpreter in Guangzhou could hardly keep a straight face while requesting the fish at a seafood restaurant.
“It’s like asking to eat something inedible — like an iron,” explained the giggling young man, whose favorite dish was dog.