Over the years, Tung Choi has evolved to include reptiles and every other type of pet, including your favorite doggie. Found at the north end of Tung Choi Street, it started as a world of water and fins as well as tanks and fish food, in contrast to Bird Street just a few blocks away, also in the Mong Kok district in Kowloon.
I began going to this paradise back in 1993. It was a suggestion of my best friend Egbert, who in his many travels and zest in the search for the ultimate pets made me aware of this magnificent street’s existence and the joy one gets from spending several hours in this one stretch alone. Back then, the most important impression it left on me was made by the arowana store at the end of the street towards Prince Edward station. It had, as its centerpiece, a tenfoot aquarium with a colony of super red arowanas. I didn’t even bother counting how many were in it, whether it was the eight or nine pieces feng shui masters normally recommended.
To me, twenty-three years ago, seeing a community tank of adult super red arowanas was the ultimate. Never mind if their fins were torn, half of them had drop-eyes, and their colors were not as distinct reds as they are sold nowadays. I believe there has been so much progress over the last twenty-three years that it is worth a pet lovers’ time to visit the area everytime s/he is in Hong Kong.
I arrived this time on the morning of May 31 for a competition at Hong Kong University. The trip was for four days and by the second day, in my shorts and sneakers, I was already able to survey the street once more. Much to my joy and excitement, there were several domesticated animals already being sold. I noticed this transition happening over twenty years. Starting out purely as an aquarist’s paradise, reptiles started being sold, especially frogs and turtles, so much so that by the close of the nineties, second floor shops started offering iguanas, uromastyx, and other amphibians as well. By the early part of 2001, dogs and cats were being offered by a few shops. Today, the dog and cat pet shops (no vet services offered) have mushroomed and the pets for sale are of exquisite quality. It was very tempting, to say the least.
Alongside these transitions of various pet shops coming and going are food shops to satisfy one’s palate. From dimsum to roast goose, there will always be great Hong Kong restaurants running the length of Tung Choi. Does one even bother to eat while satisfying one’s greatest passion for pet keeping? In my first fifteen years going to Tung Choi, I never bothered even picking up a drink to quench my thirst. Somehow, eight years ago, things changed for me. I was with two students from Hong Kong Baptist University when they introduced me to shaved ice dessert. I wanted very much to learn how they prepared themselves for case competitions. They in turn wanted me to enjoy one of Hong Kong life’s simple pleasures.
Coming back in 2014, a professor from Xavier School brought us to one of the best dimsum houses in all of Hong Kong. So good it was, we never were bothered by the two and a half hour wait in line to get in the place. Last year and this year, I would not leave Tung Choi for the MTR without first buying my roast goose for the trip back to Manila.
Most shops in the Goldfish Market area of Tung Choi Street, Mong Kok, open in the mid-morning, around 10:00 or 10:30 a.m. The street itself is quite quiet at this time as most visitors do not arrive until later.
Like many shops in Hong Kong, those in the Goldfish Market selling to aquarists are open until quite late, at least 8 p.m., and many shops don’t close until 10:00 p.m. Last June, I was out on the street until about 11 p.m., trying to see what I could bring home as “pasalubong” for my kids and apo. It turns out that many stores selling snacks and junk food are the last to close, catering mostly to locals.
Many regular visitors to the street prefer to visit in the evening when it is dark as the light effects in the display tanks are often very impressive. One can say that people go there to window-shop rather than really buy stuff for their pets or the pets themselves.
While all types of shops exist on Goldfish Market, many specialize in just one type of product such as goldfish, koi, arowanas, reptiles, or seawater marine shops. Some sell only accessories or focus exclusively on tank decorations. Aquatic plants and different types of seaweeds now also have their own dedicated vendors due to the recent growth of interest in tank dressing. Aquascaping is now very advanced in Hong Kong with Amano-type aquariums just one of the types in fashion.
Amid all this glory of the shops are the commercial organizations, though many of the owners are of course enthusiasts themselves; they have rents to pay and are keen to make a sale. Most of them, like me, started going to Tung Choi as kids.
So please remember the goldfish market is a commercial district, not a tourist attraction, though we do acknowledge that many people come to view what’s there and understand it is purchases that make the shops survive.
Fish, of course, dominate the majority of the purchases at the Goldfish Market. Locals go there to buy fish of a particular sort. As a visitor to Hong Kong, of course, you won’t be purchasing live fish to take back to your home. You risk your baggage to Manila getting wet accidentally as the oxygenated bags burst in a cargo hold that is not pressurized. Putting the fish in your hand-carried baggage that is keenly scrutinized by airport inspectors isn’t a good idea either. The transport of many fish species require prior permits when moving from country to country.
Seaweed, on the other hand, are decorative plants which aquarists are very interested in; they are very widely available at the Goldfish Market, and very transportable. I assume they are all raised and propagated in China, with the multitude of varieties and the sizes made available by many shops punctuating the street.
Accessories are the most common purchases for tourists; these include the various accessories for tanks such as decorations, filters, and thermometers, plus other items such as books, vitamin supplements, medicine, and pet food. The list goes on and on and continues to grow over the years. For is it not true that goldfish have been around for the last four thousand years in Chinese history.
Forever, this street will be etched in my life. It will be my ageless ”Toys R Us,” a street I cannot skip on every trip I make to Hong Kong. It is an allure and temptation I will always cherish and hopefully will pass on to my young kids and their kids. I wonder whether movies like “Finding Dory” were inspired by short but meaningful trips to the Goldfish Market?
This story appeared in Animal Scene’s August 2016 issue.