All of Hiep Hong's best creations are covered in water.
But that's not a bug, as the techies say, that's a feature: Hong, a once and future Austinite currently working out of Houston, is an aquaculture artist, a man who wreaks beauty and practical living quarters for fish and such out of rocks and plants and other natural materials.
But a lot of people do that, right? How else does the fishy section of your local pet emporium stay in business?
Sure, but not everybody takes their talent and industry in creating such things to enter into the annual competition known as the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest.
In last year's IAPLC there were more participants than ever – 2,336 entries from 68 countries and areas – and Hong's Aqueous Reflection was ranked 116 out of all those. And the tricky thing is, those aquatic plants? They're not fake aquatic plants made out of plastic or fabric or anything like that. They're not even regular plants that have been submerged for as long as they'll last that way. No, these are naturally occurring underwater plants that have been raised in a tank in order to create fish-friendly and aesthetically compelling environments.
And how does a person get involved in a field like this?
"I started out by browsing a lot of online forums related to aquariums," says Hong. "Nowadays, forum activity has died down significantly and Facebook groups are seeing the most traffic and activity – so I'd start by looking at any aquarium/aquascaping-related groups there."
And then it's all about the fish, right? You get yourself a few neon tetras or a couple of ruby swordtails, and then –
"Actually," says Hong, "I find that a great starter in the hobby currently are not fish, but dwarf shrimp. They're all the rage online and in aquarium shops now. Most breeds in the Neocaridina genus of shrimp are very colorful and attractive. They're hardy, too, and breed quite easily – all traits that make them very popular and attractive to beginners.
"But I think an equally great idea for a beginner," he continues, "is to visit local shops and just look around for a fish or whatever other aquatic creature that really fascinates them, then go home and do all the research to find out what's necessary to keep that fish. There's nothing quite like seeing it right before your eyes to inspire you to dig in and learn about the creature. Learning about the plants and animals is a part of the hobby that I find incredibly gratifying and enjoyable."
While Hong, who could ply his trade pretty much anywhere, chooses to remain in the Lone Star State because he's got family in Austin and is currently finishing up his last semester at the University of Houston, another reason for staying is also related to aquascaping.
"Two of the most famous aquascapers in the U.S. – brothers Mike and Jeff Senske, owners of Aquarium Design Group – live here in Houston," says Hong, "and I've built a very close relationship with both of them these past four years. Being around the Senske brothers and learning from them have played a major role in my success as an aquascaper."
And when I thank the talented young man for his time, his face brightens with the smile of a true enthusiast. "One of my biggest missions," says Hong, "is to expand the hobby."
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