When Chi Hung Cho was four, his brother’s girlfriend bought him his very first pet fish–two Ryukin goldfish. The pair lived in his 10-gallon aquarium inside his family’s Chinatown apartment for the next five or so years. Since then, “fishkeeping” as he calls it, has become a big part of his life.
Cho– who’s now part-owner and manager of Pacific Aquarium and Plants on Delancey Street, not far from his boyhood home– recalled that, as a child, he would visit exotic fish shops in the area with his parents, garment factory workers who immigrated from Hong Kong when he was three.
“I used to stay for hours and watch the fish,” recalled Cho, who is known to everyone in the neighborhood as Chi. “I used to like watching fish more than the TV.”
Though recently renovated, Pacific Aquarium’s storefront, at the fluid border between Chinatown and the Lower East Side, still shows signs of wear. It has the usual trappings of small, family-owned businesses in Chinatown: an old-school, silver-painted sign and, on its glass door, two lines of ornamental rhyming Chinese verse. The front of the tiny store is slightly cramped, having accumulated a great deal of stuff over the years: fish food, marine medications, water conditioner, saltwater supplements, aquascaping tools are stacked up along the wall behind the counter, all the way up to the ceiling.
There’s a koi pond next to the entrance, where orange-and-gold fancy Japanese koi shoal through a pyramid of carefully staged wood logs. In an enormous, 60-inch freshwater tank, all manner of colorful species of tetras, snails, and spiky-headed shrimp roam around a green forest of aquatic plants.
At 10:30 am on a Thursday morning, when only the most eager hobbyists would show up at the shop, employees at Pacific Aquarium have long been going about their daily routine– changing water, feeding, siphoning sands, cleaning tank glasses, and testing water quality.
“I’ve always wanted to work here,” said Krystian Galazka, who was a regular customer of the shop for six years before he started working at the store as an aquarium specialist whenever he’s not going to school at Manhattan Community College. “It’s the number one store in New York City,” he assured me.
Housing more than 120 freshwater tanks, the Pacific Aquarium carries over 20 different species of African and South American Cichlids, around half a dozen species of fancy goldfish, various schooling tetras, guppies, mollies, betas, and a number of seasonal wild-caught exotic freshwater fish.
Towards the middle of the store is the saltwater section. An assortment of sea anemones, shrimps, hermit crabs, and coral frags inhabit the two columns of shallow, rectangular saltwater tanks to the right of the hallway that connects the front and back of the store. Larger fish such as tangs, puffer, and angelfish are kept in the fish-only tanks in the back of the store. Chi also keeps an expert-only tank back there, which contains the most expensive and delicate corals and ornamental clams.
According to Chi, Pacific wasn’t always an aquarium specialty store. In 1982, the store’s founder John Chin, an immigrant from Hong Kong who remains a part-owner today, opened up a pet store that carried an assortment of pet fish, birds, rodents, and reptiles at the same Lower East Side location. In the 1990s, Pacific faced competition from pet shop chains like Petco and Petland Discounts; Chin decided that they would focus on aquatic pets only– it was then the store transformed into the aquarium specialty store today.
Since it opened, Pacific has built a loyal customer base. “It’s my favorite aquarium store in Manhattan,” said Adam Funk, a Chinatown resident and owner of an Oscar fish— a type of Cichlid that’s famous for its blue-black background and orange pattern. “It’s less corporate and a lot better for asking questions, and the displays are almost like a free visit to the aquarium.”
Chi takes a great deal of pride in the educational aspect of his store. “If you can figure out which country, which river or lake the fish is from you will begin to understand how to care for them better,” he explained.
Over the last decade, the mom-and-pop neighborhood pet store has transformed into an emporium for hobbyists, as well as business owners looking to spruce up their lobbies, dining rooms, and sales floors. Chi even caters to a few celebrities. According to Guerrero, Tyler Perry’s wife once stopped by the store and bought a pre-planted three-gallon tank for their daughter. “Unfortunately we only found out that it was Tyler Perry’s wife long afterwards,” he said, looking slightly disappointed.
The fish have even acquired a star-status of their own– location scouts, won over by Pacific’s unique storefront and neighborhoody vibe, have cast the shop as a location for film and commercial shoots, according to Chi. The shop’s biggest moment was a cameo in the 2015 movie Tracers starring Taylor Lautner– a chase scene took place at Pacific Aquarium when Cam (Taylor) was trying to escape from the Chinese mafia.
Today, the customer base is vastly different from just ten years ago, when most of Chi’s customers were the store’s Chinese and Latino neighbors. Though a substantial percentage of regulars are still Chinese. One employee at Pacific had a vague explanation for why the steady regulars keep coming back. “It definitely has something to do with the culture, feng shui and stuff,” said Rocky, who admitted that he didn’t know much about feng shui, an ancient Chinese philosophy, beyond that having fish in one’s home would bring good luck to the family members.
“The Chinese character [for] fish, ‘yu’ shares the same sound as another word that means happiness and abundance,” explained Michele Matteini, a Chinese art history professor at New York University. “Fish is often found on a lot of Chinese ceramics and carvings. It is a symbol that’s believed to be auspicious.”
Whether it’s due to cultural beliefs, aesthetic preferences, or pure passion for the hobby, customers seem to keep coming back to the store for answers, aquarium supplies, and new additions to their tanks. Chi said that at the end of last year they had struck another deal with the landlord for ten more years. “We liked the location very much and we are probably going to be here for quite a while,” he said.