Hobbyists paying big bucks for tiny shrimp
He can spend up to three hours a day just gazing into six fish tanks.
But it is not large, slow-moving fish that have his undivided attention.
Instead, they are tiny, scuttling critters of varying colours, breed and cost: ornamental shrimp.
Mr Steve Su, 27, a field sales supervisor, knows that some people may scoff at the idea of watching these small creatures for such long hours.
He, however, has a bench specially designated for shrimp-gazing in his four-room HDB flat in Fernvale. Says Mr Su: "It is therapeutic to look at them. And it can be quite fascinating to watch them scurry around."
It was the crystal red shrimp, or CRS as it is better known as, that first caught his attention five years ago.
Mr Su recalls with a boyish grin: "I came across them in some fish shop and I was attracted to the shrimps' striking colours."
But his first attempt at shrimp-keeping was short-lived.
He says: "Not knowing much, I started out with a poor set-up and didn't maintain the shrimps properly. After a while, the shrimps died."
The CRS craze first hit Japan in 1996, when Japanese breeder Hisayasu Suzuki discovered a red mutant among thousands of black-banded bee shrimps and patented it.
Other breeders refined the specimens to achieve the koi-like shrimp, which is also popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Mr Su decided to have another go at shrimp-keeping last July after he moved into his new home.
This time he decided on 10 rare German pinto shrimps, which cost him $350 each.
It turned out to be an expensive and painful experience.
He says: "I think something was wrong with the soil. The shrimps started to die, one by one."
Mr Su reckons the biggest obstacle he faced was trying to obtain more information on shrimp-keeping.
"Somehow, most of the aquariums want to keep their breeding tips a secret," he says.
But he believes his woes are over. Four months ago, on the recommendation of a fellow breeder, he met long-time hobbyist Alvin Chan, who runs Aquarist Chamber.
Mr Su says: "Alvin analysed the situation and offered advice, like getting the right equipment for the different kinds of shrimps I wanted to keep."
It has been a success so far.
Mr Su is coy about how much he has spent on the various shrimps he has, but lets on that each can cost as little as $1 to about $1,200 a piece.
His current set-up of six tanks, a holding rack, air pump and chiller cost about $3,000.
He is pleased with the "rewards".
Says Mr Su: "It is always a special moment when the shrimp gives birth. The suspense comes from waiting to see how the baby shrimp with different colours and breed turn out, and what grade, "cheap" or "expensive", they will be."
From his initial batch of 15 shrimps, he now has about 50 shrimps of various breeds, colours and patterns.
While his wife is not a shrimp fan, she sometimes joins him on the bench for a chat. They have two daughters, nine and three.
He says: "My younger girl loves to feed the shrimps with me."
Mr Su is part of a growing community of shrimp hobbyists here who are spending more time and money on exploring the world of the tiny crustaceans.
"We are spreading the love like a virus," he declares with a laugh.
Tiny love, big effort
They may grow to only 3cm and their general life span is about two years.
One can cost as little as $1 or up to $1,200, depending on the grading scales.
And, you can't eat them.
Keeping them requires the right kind of environment and a set-up that could be quite costly.
Yet these ornamental shrimps are gaining a gradual and steady following, among their admirers are students and working professionals.
A check with several shops indicated that there are many variations of shrimps, from crystal red to yamato, zebra and cherry.
Aquarist Chamber owner Alvin Chan, 35, started out as a hobbyist.
He recalls how the first year in 2007 was a real test as his attempts to keep the shrimps failed.
"No one could guide or teach the proper methods then and it was a year of failure," he says.
At that time, the fad was not catching on yet in Singapore and what few breeders there were, were still in experimenting stage.
Mr Chan says he "started to make progress" after he met a friend from Taiwan, who was willing to guide him.
Aware that there were other hobbyists who faced the same problem, Mr Chan started Aquarist Chamber in December 2013.
He has since expanded from ornamental shrimps to include a section on small- and medium-sized fishes such as wild discus and plecos.
But Mr Chan has not forgotten his initial aim. He says: "I still share my knowledge with other hobbyists to guide them."
That passion is evident from the way he interacts with customers, many of whom have become regulars at his shop in Upper Serangoon Road.
Customers are free to move around and spend hours observing colourful and patterned shrimp without feeling obliged to buy.
Mr Chan says: "Customer service is key and I don't believe in hard-sell. They must fall in love with the shrimps first."
And for an interested novice, Mr Chan says a basic start-up kit at home should include "an average 0.5-metre tank, chiller, canister filtration, soil, bacteria and appropriate minerals", which could cost up to $1,000, excluding the shrimps.
For someone like this reporter, who finds it hard to even keep guppies alive, it is hard to understand the fascination with shrimps - especially when it doesn't sound like a cheap hobby.
Mr Chan says: "One reason the interest is sustained is the sense of achievement when you find you are breeding good shrimps.
"There is also a sense of satisfaction from working through failed breeding attempts to find a solution or improvement to the system."
And the operators are confident the community will grow.
Mr Colin Chin, 31, owner of CRS Haven in Tampines, says: "We are always importing new breeds of shrimps and that keeps the hobbyists engaged."
CRS Haven, which has been specialising in ornamental shrimp since 2007, has recently introduced its own trademark Wondershrimp.
The species are kept in an open self-sustaining ecosystem that may appeal to those looking for shrimps that need less maintenance.
Mr Chin says in jest: "You can go on a holiday for a month, come back and they'd still be alive."