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Frontosa Keeping in Hong Kong
by Simon Tsang


Keeping fish is never cheap in Hong Kong. The main reason is the extraordinary high property price in Hong Kong. At its peak, a footprint of a 4 ft tank would translate into the price of a compact car. However, benefited by the Hong Kong’s free trade policy, a wide variety of fresh and salt-water aquarium fishes are available in the market at reasonable price. Most fishes are imported although some of them, mainly goldfish, are locally bred. Wholesales and retails of aquarium fish are highly concentrated in an area called "Mong Kok" where you could find some 30 aquarium shops in one street. Stock includes red arowana, merodontotus tigrinus, stingrays, Lates Niloticus, marine fishes, live coral, and of course, African cichlids.

African cichlids were introduced to Hong Kong around 1980. The choice at that time was limited and the price was high especially for Frontosa. People were eager to breed these profitable species. However, I seldom heard of people breeding Frontosas successfully. Hobbyists were tough to use under gravel filter with power head and fine coral sand. Blood worm, live shrimp, flake and pellets are common staple food for African cichlids. Burundi was the only Frontosa variety available at that time. The population of African Cichlids keepers grew steadily and peaked in mid 1990’s. At present, there is still a stable population of dedicated African cichlid hobbyists in Hong Kong.

The shops

African cichlid specialist shops emerged shortly after the introduction of African cichlids to Hong Kong. The number grew in tandem with the population of African cichlids keepers. These shops come and go, but my favorite shop (I call the owner "Fat Keung") has a strong foothold in the market. In my opinion, Fat Keung’s shop carries the best quality stock. It has the newest species and the most varieties. Yet the prices are the cheapest on the market. Most important of all, Fat Kueng’s shop brings in a trade-back system. Customers can sell their African cichlids back to the shop at 70% of the purchased price. Hobbyists are tempted to swap their fishes at home with other new or better specimens. In essence, it creates an extra demand on African Cichlids, which is beyond the limitation of aquarium size. Other shops have adopted this practice as well.

Fish clubs are not common in Hong Kong. Fat Keung’s shop, with so many hobbyists hanging around, virtually forms a fish club by itself. People crowed in a 100 sq ft shop (with twenty four 2ft tanks and two 6 ft tanks), exchanging fishes and sharing their experience. As Fat Keung and some hobbyists like horse-betting, in those horse-racing days, the shop simply turns into a war room.

My tank

I started keeping fish when I was ten. Under the cover of "Feng Shui", I have been fortunate enough to secure a fish tank at home so far, even though the tank size has never exceeded 4 ft ("Feng Shui" is an ancient Chinese art/study of natural environment. It tells people the best placement of an object in the home or location for a home to bring good health and fortune. A fish tanks  is quite often considered by Chinese people to bring wealth and suppress bad luck if it properly placed at home.)

I bought my first Frontosa in Arizona when I visited there in 1988. I brought this 2 inch juvenile Burundi back to Hong Kong and started my first African cichlid tank. As other people did, I used an under gravel filter with power heads and 2 inches of coral sand as substrate. Boulders, clay pots were put to the tank to provide shelters. The filter used was an overhead wet filter. I must confess that the Burundi Front was not my favorite fish as the other tankmates, peacock and electric blue. They were far more attractive than this small Frontosa.

After a year, I went to Singapore for work where I started a bigger tank at 6 feet long. African cichlids were less popular there and the choice was far more limited. For some reason, maybe the water, the color of the fishes was less brilliant. Hence, I needed to bring over the African cichlids from Hong Kong, but this time no Frontosa.

Shortly after my return to Hong Kong in 1993, I started an African Cichlid tank again. This time, my passion Frontosa grew a lot. They appeared to me like a successful marriage between a beauty and beast. The fish looks so fierce but yet so gentle the way it carries its body. It acts like a glorious emperor patrolling its territory, parading its sovereignty. In addition, each Front seems to have its unique appearance and character. I have all sorts of excuses to buy one Frontosa after another. My first wild caught Frontosa was brought in 1993. They were two 4 inch wild caught Zambian blues. Their condition was not very desirable. One of them died few days later, however the other grew up and turned out to be my most favorite "Front". The Zambian blue had bright blue fins and luxurious blue color over the head and shoulder. My Zambian blue’s photo was later printed on the letterhead of Fat Keung’s shop. I considered it was the biggest acknowledgement to my Frontosa.

My first wild caught Zaire blue was brought six months after the Zambian blues. It was 5 in. long and cost me more than USD 230. It was nearly doubled the price of the Zambian blue. However, I still thought that it was worth the money. The Front was simply breath taking. I could hardy image how intense the blue or I should call it violet could be. You could only see black and violet bars. Unfortunately, the Zaire blue died two days later. It did not discourage me. Since then, I had brought all together more than 20 Zaire blue in two year’s time. I fed mostly krill and pellets to my Fronts. Bloodworms were fed occasionally as a desert.

However, my favorite Zambian blue lost its appetite and color gradually. I did not know why and nobody could give me advice. It helped somewhat when I fed it with live bloodworms, shrimp and fish. In the later stages the fish was even not interested in brine shrimp. I eventually sold off the Zambian blue and other Fronts in 1995 when I switched to Marine fishes.

In last February, I went into a Chinese restaurant in Germany; there was a fish tank. My attention was immediately arrested by a dominant male Frontosa there. It stirred up my hidden passion for Fronts again. Back to Hong Kong; I went through all the video on my fishes in the past ten years. I found that I kept cycling my tank with goldfish, Japanese koi, African cichlids, marine fishes and Amazon exotics. Among these fishes, African cichlids were kept for most of the time and most of the video were on Fronts. I decided to come back again. I went to the Fat Keung’s shop. Fortunately, he was still running the business. The shop was still crowded with hobbyists. The population of African cichlids keepers had not thinned out. To my pleasant surprise, various new Front varieties were imported under different trade name – Mpimbwe blue, Ikola, Samazi blue and Kasanga blue. I asked Fat Keung about tank setup, he told me that I was the only customer who used under an gravel filter. I decided to give up under gravel filter this time, as it was quite difficult to maintain.

My current set up uses a 800 gal/hr overhead vacuum filter, a thin layer of coral sand, a heater set to 77 degrees F, battery back up dual output air pump and a 54 W lamp. I feed krill, frozen bloodworm and African cichlid pellets. To suppress aggression, I overstock the tank. I put to my 50 gallon tank one 4 in. and one 5 in. Mpimbwe blue, four 5 in. and four 1 in. Zaire blue, three 3 in. Samazi blue, one 5 in. Ikola, one 5 in. Kasanga blue and one 4 in. Burundi. They are all male or at least appear like males. Tankmates include four O. Ventralis, some small Malawians and lot of sucker catfishes to clean up algae and left overs. The density is startling, but even more startling is that it is only half of that of other hobbyists. Just like the others, I overfeed too. To tackle the exceptionally high bioload problem, I do frequent water change. I change 50% of the water at least every week. African cichlid salt and buffers are added after every water change. Of course, it is too early to judge if the Fronts could grow up in good conditions this way but so far, they are doing pretty good.

The Front varieties

In late 1980’s, there was limited choice of Front varieties. Burundi and Zambian were the only choices. Wild caught Zambian blues were first introduced to Hong Kong in early 1990’s, followed shortly by Zaire blue. These new front varieties changed people’s perception of Fronts. A back and white world suddenly painted with colors. New varieties were being imported subsequently under new trade names such as Mpimbwe, Samazi blue, Ikola and Kasanga blue.

Fronts have always been under high demand especially for handsome specimens. Hobbyists sought after Fronts with a big hump, and a short and tall body. Wild caught Fronts were preferred, as they tended to have better profile and color of which captive-bred specimens could hardy attend. Inter-trade among hobbyists was quite common. Overstocking was popular in Hong Kong. Instead of keeping a colony of same Front variety of similar size, hobbyists tended to put different varieties of various sizes in a tank. Hyper-aggressive Fronts were often traded away to avoid disaster. As the average water temperature in Hong Kong is high, which could reach 86 degrees F. in summer, the Fronts would grow at an amazing speed if they were well fed with high protein food. To tackle heavy bioload problems, heavy duty filtration systems are widely used.

Now, the most sought after Front variety is Samazi blue. Samazi blue has a short body with excellent black and while contrast. It has nice blue to violet color on its head, shoulder and fins. The body is the roundest among all the Front varieties. The second most sought after variety is wild caught Zaire blue. The reason is simply the color. Zaire blue has the bluest color among all other varieties. On the other hand, Zaire blues are quite often bad tempered. I would avoid putting a Zaire blue as the dominant Front in my tank. Second tier Fronts include Kasanga blue, Ikola, Zambian blue and Mpimbwe blue. Kasanga blue and Ikola share a unique body profile. The body is tall and the head is edged. Ikola has a blue-to-violet face while Kasanga blue tends to be more pastel in color. Zambian blue has a luxurious metallic blue color outlining each scale on its head and the upper part of the body. The fins have a brilliant blue color as well. Mpimbwe blue has a proportionally big head and chest. Its profile and color stand on its own. Adults tend to be dark in color which makes it look like a black beauty. The captive-bred Mpimbwe blue is an exception. They are equally attractive as the wild caught. Burundi and Kigoma Fronts belong to the third tier. If someone asks me who is the most fierce fighter, I would nominate both of them. Of course, they have their own attractiveness. Burundi has the most prominent head among all others. It has the most primitive appearance as well. As regards color, some Burundi do display nice blue on the face, body and fins. Kigoma, besides having one more stripe, has a beautiful black cheek as well.

Of course, different people have different preferences. But when it comes to fish selection, good black and white contrast (even under stress) is elementary. Personally, my dreamed Front should have a Kigoma’s cheek, Burundi’s hump, Kasanga’s head, Mpimbwe’s chest, Samazi blue’s white, Zaire blue’s color and Zambian’s scale. Even more ideal, the Front should have a pleasant character, great appetite, productive, self-control, fast growing...etc, etc.

Where and how much

African cichlids, mainly Pseudotropheus, were first imported from South East Asia. Fat Keung's shop is the first petshop which imported African cichlids from the Western world. To date, African cichlids are imported from Germany, Holland, Belgium and to a lesser extent, France. For some reason, African cichlids imported from Taiwan do not gain much respect from serious breeders. African Cichlids have been imported from the States before. However, due to the long flights (24 hours in total), the death on arrival rate is high. It is the biggest deterrent factor. The price of Frontosa has never come down. The following price table indicates the retail price of Front varieties in Hong Kong:

     Burundi wild 6" $55
      10" $164
        tank raised 1.5-2" $4
     Zambian wild 6" $50
     Mpimbwe blue wild 6-7" $110
      8" $150
        tank raised 1.5-2" $20
     Kasanga blue wild 5-6" $115
     Ikola wild 5-6" $110
     Samazi blue wild 3.5" $115
      5-6" $150
     Zaire blue wild 6" $150
        tank raised 1.5-2" $45


Frontosas are a magnificent gift from nature. I always have feared that Lake Tanganyika could dry up, its water could be contaminated by industry, fish could be over-harvested by fisherman, or predators would be introduced to the lake just as Lake Victoria. I hope all these situations will never happen. Our next generation should have the right to appreciate the beauty of this fish just as what we are doing today! □


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