Thin Tham, a 46-year-old refugee from Vietnam, pounds a glass tank to rouse his arapaima gigas from the deep. A specimen, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, makes its way upward. Tham keeps two of these waterborne mammoths, native to the rivers and lakes of the Amazon rainforest, at his Giant Aquarium in South Philly. The second stays close to the bottom, unmoved by the percussive summons.
“I guess he’s not hungry.” But when he is, says Tham, “he eats everything. They’re not picky.” Each fish is about 5 feet long, though they can grow as large as 9 feet. They’re six years old — just like the Giant Aquarium, a popular oddity at Seventh and Tasker. In the wild, arapaima sometimes eat birds that stray too close to the water, according to National Geographic. In South Philly, one leapt out of the water and burst through the drywall above its 3,000-gallon tank, landing on the floor. Tham had to wait a number of minutes, until the thing was tired, before he could safely pick it up.
Small buildings sometimes contain powerful wonders in Philadelphia. So it is with this one-time lumberyard and sign shop, an underground landmark that attracts serious collectors and wide-eyed neighborhood kids alike to a block that’s seen an influx of Southeast Asian and Mexican immigrants, bringing with them businesses like a convenience store hawking arroz con leche, or rice pudding, and a live poultry shop (with signage noting that food stamps are accepted). The shop is a bridge between the hardcore fish enthusiasm that’s widespread in Asia and hobbyists from throughout the region, and exemplifies the transformation of this corner of South Philly from heavily white to polyglot diversity.
Giant Aquarium would not stand out in Hong Kong, where Tham spent much of his childhood. The city is home to the enormous Goldfish Market, or Goldfish Street, an entire district dedicated to the sale of exotic fish and pets. Tham — whose family fled Vietnam (by way of China, the Philippines and Hong Kong) along with hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Chinese in the late 1970s as war broke out between China and Vietnam — has introduced the Asian fascination to South Philly.
In Tham’s native Cantonese, the language commonly spoken in Hong Kong and by most of Vietnam’s Chinese minority, the word “goldfish” refers not just to the ordinary carp that I solemnly buried in my childhood backyard, but to ornamental fish in general. That includes the giant arapaima, which Tham keeps for show. “Nobody’s going to buy that,” he admits. He does sell koi, which reside in a pond built into the floor. The koi, whose mouths continuously gape skyward, recognize regular visitors: “Every time they see you, they’ll just come up to you.”
As a cat makes frustrated rounds up and down the aisles, innumerable delicacies just out of reach, Tham surveys his inventory.
Most of his stock is of Asian descent. And so is much of his clientele. “They always have the feng shui. Like, good-luck stuff.” Particularly, arowana, also known as dragon fish, are believed to bring good fortune. But Tham doesn’t buy it. “To me it’s just a fish. Some people believe it.”
Many shoppers favor the startling varieties of flowerhorns. The fish are bred in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia to have large bumps on their foreheads — some subtle, others like protruding golf balls or Elvis Presley pompadours. Fish with unique cranial features are, Tham admits, a luxury — some are priced at up to $500 each. (“The bigger the horn, the more expensive,” he notes.) The recession has hurt business. “You have no money, but still you need to go eat. ... Only if you have extra money do you spend on this kind of hobby.” Other fish stores in the area, he says, have closed. “If you’re a pet store, it’s OK. … But only fish, you have a major hit. A lot of wholesale places, they go out of business, too.”
In Asia, fish sellers have reportedly done a brisk recession-era business among those seeking auspicious ornamental specimens. But Americans, says Tham, are “just not into it like the Asians.”
Some are into it, though. “I’ve had fish a long time,” says James Dockery, 59, an African-American bank employee from Eastwick who has a 125-gallon tank at home. He stoops to inspect a tank near the floor. The shop is “kind of like a boutique, and the rest of the stores are all generic. … People who are really into fish, you know, they talk about this store.”
One middle-aged Asian man rushes in, announcing, “My fish is sick!” He heads straight to a back aisle before paying for his antibiotics and leaving.
Just as often, though, foot traffic includes kids like Shane, 16, who arrives with a group of other white South Philly teens from the neighborhood, all there to sightsee. “My little brother told me about it,” says Shane, sporting a well-manicured mustache and a track suit. It may not be the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, but, as he notes, “Lot of cool fishes in here.”