It all started with the arowana fish, the most expensive aquarium fish in the world. Mr. Johnny Yeo’s father’s admiration for the prehistoric looking dragon fish led to him buying a few juveniles. The formerly tiny dragons grew quickly and ate an alarming amount of molly fish. Their growth required several tank upgrades.
One day at the molly farm, the Yeo family learnt that the owner was looking to sell. This chance conversation led to the Yeo family taking over the farm.
This was the beginning of Marugen Koi Farm, which is now one of Singapore’s top Koi farms and one of the few that breeds their own fish. We sit down with Mr. Johnny Yeo of Marugen Koi Farm today to talk koi and Singaporeans’ love for aquaculture.
Hello Johnny, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m Johnny Yeo, founder of Marugen Koi Farm. We’re a small boutique Japanese koi fish farm in Singapore. We offer handpicked, high quality imported Japanese koi to our customers. We also breed our own koi from high quality Oyagoi (parent koi) imported from Japan. Apart from locals, we also have customers from other parts of Asia.
How did Marugen Koi Farm come about?
Originally, we started off as an Arowana breeding farm. Arowana and koi are my family’s biggest passions. My father, my brother and I are all obsessed with these two types of fish. We wanted to try our hand at breeding koi right here in Singapore.
We hired a man who used to work for a koi farm with first-hand experience in koi breeding. It was a slow process with many months of failures. Before koi grow into the big beautiful fish you see ornamental ponds, they must first survive being a baby koi.
Baby koi are known as fries and they are extremely, extremely fragile. We have to literally babysit them so they don’t get consumed by water insects and longkang fish. As they grow bigger, other predators like kingfishers and herons start to come into the picture.
What does the name “Marugen” mean?
Marugen in Japanese can be broken down into “Maru” and “Gen”.
Maru refers to round or circle in Japanese.
Gen refers to source, both Chinese and Japanese adapt the same chinese character 源, which is read as yuan in mandarin, and Gen in Japanese.
源 also happens to be my father’s name. And I named the farm after his name as a form of appreciation to him.
Our Marugen Logo has a circle around the word 源 in it, which completes the name Marugen!
What do you think gives koi their mass appeal and what is it about koi do you think Singaporeans like?
Koi is like an art. Every piece is uniquely different with their own markings. For some koi hobbyists, it’s like collecting living pieces of art. Admirers of koi also like them for their friendly nature. Looking at them swimming gracefully in the pond is also very relaxing.
Do you have koi at home? Tell us their names.
Yes, of course we have koi at home! We have red and white koi (kohaku), tri-colour koi (showa) and black and white koi (shiro utsuri).
I learnt recently that Singapore was the top global export of ornamental fish in the 1990s to 2003. What do you think has caused that decline?
In my opinion, this largely due to the high cost of land and labour.
This makes it harder for Singapore to compete with other countries, where the costs of producing bread-and-butter ornamental fishes like guppies and mollies is much lower.
When Singapore used to be an ornamental fish hub, there was a lot of money to be made in importing and exporting ornamental fish. Companies here would import fish, quarantine them and then re-export them overseas. Now customers are importing their fish directly from their target countries and skipping Singapore by cutting out the middle man.
I read that because it’s expensive to maintain both breeding and dealing licenses in Singapore, most farms only sell koi and they don’t breed them. Marugen is clearly different. What made you decide on such a big undertaking and investment?
It’s love. It’s our passion for koi. We started off as avid koi hobbyists, after all. Despite the high costs and labour intensive nature our work, our passion for koi kept us going.
Most koi imported from Japan to Singapore come from Niigata, Japan. Niigata is also known for their rice and their snowy season. What happens to koi in Singapore that don’t ever have to face the winter?
Koi can survive well in all countries with four seasons. During the cold winter, they will hibernate, and when the weather turns warm again, they become active and eat again. In our warm climate, it is like summer all year long, so koi can continue to eat without worry of cold. Lucky them.
What effect did the Circuit Breaker and the pandemic have on the farm?
One of our main employees had just returned to his home country for a vacation just before the Circuit Breaker (CB). Then the pandemic worsened and the world changed. He’s still unable to return to Singapore today. I would say a shortage of manpower is one of our biggest issues.
Online platforms like Lazada made a big difference for us during the CB.
Through Lazada, we got exposure and new customers. Our old customers were able to use the platform to replenish their supply of koi food. When the CB was lifted, some of these Lazada customers dropped by our farm and brought new koi home! We feel really grateful that Lazada has helped to sustain our business.
Culling, which is the process of separating unsuitable koi from the rest, is something that is very time-consuming. What happens to the unsuitable koi?
We are thankful that we are able to sell them to ornamental fish exporters in bulk for export overseas.
And how do you train people for the job? Does everyone who interacts with the fish at Marugen Koi Farm have to be certified in some way?
The art of farming koi is a never-ending learning process. Each new employee will be paired with a more experienced one so they can mentor them through the process.
Can you tell us something our readers may not know about owning a koi farm?
When you have your own business, there’s a lot you have to pick up because you are responsible for your own success. I did my own research on the local hobbyist market. I also taught myself how to build a website and market Marugen Koi Farm to the local aquaculture scene.
I also had to teach myself how to make sure Marugen Koi Farm is on the first page of Google when people search for related keywords.
I am really glad for the conversations I’ve had with local hobbyists since and for the word-of-mouth that makes sure more people know about Marugen Koi Farm!