Urban Fish Tale

 

South 7th St.: View South/View North | Photos: Joseph G. Brin

South 7th St.: View South/View North | Photos: Joseph G. Brin

Look north and south on the plain 1500 block of South Seventh Street. There’s nothing eye catching, nothing too extraordinary; and then you notice “Giant Aquarium,” a long, sun-bleached, canvas sign canopy on the east side of the street.

Giant Aquarium | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

Tucked inside the South Philadelphia world of long rows of homes is a different world of long rows of exotic fish tanks, quietly rushing water, and a self-absorbed Siamese cat.

Friendly, modest owner Thin Tham (pronounced Tin Tam) sits at his front desk surrounded by exotic fish calendars, his bowling trophy plaques, a security camera screen, and his first U.S. dollar bill. He left North Vietnam 32 years ago and has been in business here for six years. He converted a former lumberyard with his own hands, pouring concrete for a six foot deep koi fish pool next to his desk. His various tanks are stocked with fish imported from Malaysia, Taiwan, China, and South America.

Giant Aquarium owner Thin Tham | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

Giant Aquarium owner Thin Tham | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

“Koi is still the most popular,” Tham observes. Koi, the colorful domestic carp, can live 40 years. (One koi, Hanako, purportedly lived to 226.) They’re prized for their color, pattern, size, and body shape. Believe it or not, these koi seem to recognize him when he walks to the edge of the pool. With or without food for them, they rush toward him, churning the water.

“I just love big fish,” he says. What started out as a hobby became his livelihood. He goes saltwater fishing, too, surfcasting for striped bass. His biggest catch, so far, was just under 4 feet long and weighed in at more than 40 pounds.

Large fish | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

“Hi, how are ya?” | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

The store is only a few blocks from Hidden City Festival 2013 site Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel. The immigrant Jewish community it opened to serve in 1909 has largely been replaced by Asian and Mexican immigrant communities. But remnants of old Jewish South Philadelphia can still be found, at Shivtei and in the “Tony & Sam’s Kosher & Gentile Killing” sign, only recently removed from the corner store at 7th & Dickinson. That shop is now an Asian poultry butcher shop.

Most of Tham’s customers are Asian fish hobbyists. School groups tend to stop by, too. When I asked him why people collect fish, he explained how relaxing it is, that it reduces stress. “A lot go home and watch the fish for hours,” he says.

Flowerhead fish | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

Flowerhead fish | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

Giant Aquarium is the only fully dedicated store for fish hobbyists in the central city. There are variety pet stores that sell fish, but nothing like Tham’s array of colorful, exotic fish, large and small, and sometimes expensive. That last part worries him. “If the economy is bad, hobby is first to suffer,” he notes.

On top of general concern for the economy, Tham is concerned about the impact of the City’s Actual Value Initiative, and he is pressured by other forces. “Shipping is killing us,” he explains, indicating that its regulation and health inspections have ramped up considerably in recent years. He has to go to the airport personally to pick up his fish orders, all with the proper documentation. Yet, he refuses to price himself out of business. When, for example, he sells a fish tank, he takes no profit, making his money on the fish that populate the tank.

He mentions that it is not uncommon for people of greater means to spend $100,000 on a single fish. One Saudi king, Tham says, owns a million dollar fish. Though at that outscaled price point, it’s clearly more about displaying crazy wealth than demonstrating a love of fish. Tham is happy to sell you a fish for a dollar.

The passion for exotic fish remains his drive. “I just like them,” he says of his fish. “I would be long gone if it was just about the money.”

Koi fish pool | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

Koi fish pool | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

About the author

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, product designer and writer based in Philadelphia. He has covered Philadelphia architecture, design and culture for Metropolis Magazine. His residential architecture website can be seen HERE. His new home product design company, JoeStudio, can be seen HERE



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Khmer Monastery In Kingsessing Enlightens The Schuylkill

Khmer Monastery In Kingsessing Enlightens The Schuylkill

April 24, 2017  |  Vantage

Dan Papa celebrates the Cambodian New Year with a look at the Wat Khmer Palelai Buddhist temple under construction in Southwest Philly > more

Behind The Publicity Stunt At Benjamin Franklin's Grave

Behind The Publicity Stunt At Benjamin Franklin’s Grave

April 19, 2017  |  Vantage

Nearly 70 years after Benjamin Franklin’s death, public outcry demanding honor for the Founding Father transformed a battered, overgrown gravesite into a popular tourist destination. But the real story isn't at all what we've been told. Join Mark Dixon as he uncovers truth and public deception behind the hole in the wall at Benjamin Franklin's grave > more

A Powerhouse Of Footwork And Fitness On Delaware Ave

A Powerhouse Of Footwork And Fitness On Delaware Ave

April 18, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

On the outskirts of Fishtown, a dance club and rock climbing gym keep spirits high inside an old 19th century trolley car power station > more

Engineering & Architecture Ride The Rails At Athenaeum

Engineering & Architecture Ride The Rails At Athenaeum

April 15, 2017  |  Vantage

An exhibition at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia illuminates the history of railroad architecture through drawings, photographs, and more. Michael Bixler has the review > more

Ghost Station At Art Museum Rises From The Dead

Ghost Station At Art Museum Rises From The Dead

April 13, 2017  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. walks us through the origins of the mothballed "Art Museum Station," now being renovated at the PMA, and one man's visionary plan for mass transit in Philly that never came to be > more

North Broad Rising

North Broad Rising

April 11, 2017  |  Vantage

Lights on, graffiti gone. The revamped Lorraine is once again looking divine. Will the rest of North Broad follow her lead? Bradley Maule takes a look > more