Arcade’s got the better betta

Betta fish are considered “living jewelry” for their gemlike colors and their value to their collectors, who prize their variety of fin types and distinct hues. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Betta fish are considered “living jewelry” for their gemlike colors and their value to their collectors, who prize their variety of fin types and distinct hues. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Tony Hang, owner of the Betta Shop, says betta fish are a form of Hmong cultural identity. The fish are found in rice paddies during harvest season in southeast Asia. Hang’s favorites are halfmoons, which feature 180-degree tails that fan like a peacock’s.  (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Tony Hang, owner of the Betta Shop, says betta fish are a form of Hmong cultural identity. The fish are found in rice paddies during harvest season in southeast Asia. Hang’s favorites are halfmoons, which feature 180-degree tails that fan like a peacock’s. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

East Side shops bring southeast Asian tradition to the world

You might have driven down Arcade Street a thousand times and not noticed it—but it’s there and thriving. Arcade Street between Phalen Boulevard and Wheelock Parkway is a Midwest hub for betta fish.

Three shops: the Betta Shop, Beejay’s Bettas, and Betta World, within a mile of one another, sell the colorful tropical freshwater fish.

These shops import wild-caught and specially-bred betta directly from Thailand and other Asian countries. They’re sold from the storefronts and shipped all over the United States.

These bettas aren’t the “red one or blue one” choice found at big-box stores. They’re hand-selected from overseas breeders and shipped overnight—the tiny fish, each in a small bag of water, travel thousands of miles in about 36 hours—and people come in droves to the Arcade Street betta shops to check them out once they arrive.

Betta fish are native to ponds and rice paddies in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. They’ve been described as “living jewelry” for their gemlike colors and their value to their collectors, who prize their variety of fin types, distinct hues, and—believe it or not—their personalities.

Enduring hobby

Just like the hardy little fish, the hobby of betta collecting has traveled well and thrived in the U.S.—just ask Gerald Griffin, the president of the International Betta Congress. Griffin, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says he’s been involved with the organization for 30 years, and has seen the hobby’s popularity grow.

“It is the variety of colors that intrigues the vast majority,” he says of collectors, who can choose from jewel tones, multicolored patterns, tiny spots and contrasts between fins and bodies. Not to mention the fin types—there’s the modest “veiltail,” the showy “halfmoon,” the ornate “crowntail,” the short-finned “plakat,” and other variations. Some make a specialty of collecting wild-caught bettas or “giant” bettas.

Customers school to ‘the Betta Mile’

The three stores on Arcade, sometimes called the Betta Mile, form a regional destination. Tony Hang, owner of the Betta Shop near the intersection of Arcade and Wheelock Parkway, says he and the other shops routinely get out-of-state customers, and he ships fish across the U.S. He recently sent a fish all the way to Hawaii.

Ka Ying, owner of BeeJays Bettas at Arcade and Maryland, says they’re also known internationally, thanks to a robust online presence.

The stores’ proximity seems to have benefited rather than hurt each one’s business.

Just at his own store, Khoo Yang, owner of Betta World at Cook Street and Arcade, says he gets about 400 bettas in every two weeks—he keeps half of those to sell in the shop, while half get sold online to people across the country. The other stores post similar numbers.

“Business is pretty healthy,” reports Yang, explaining there aren’t many places in the country that have stores specializing in betta fish.

Yang handles all of the international shipping for the three shops, which ends up saving the store owners money.

Although the three stores get their shipments together, they get the fish from different breeders, so each store has its own unique stock.

Phil Marlow, a board member of the Minnesota Aquarium Society, notes that shops like the ones on Arcade are relatively unique. “There aren’t a lot of betta-specific shops elsewhere in the nation,” much less in Minnesota, he says.

It helps, he notes, that the East Side is home to many Hmong-American people, for whom the fish can be culturally significant.

But the hobby of collecting betta fish is finding an increasingly diverse customer base.

Widening the spectrum

All the store owners report that there’s a much wider variety of fin types and colors to choose from than ever before, and more are always emerging as breeders compete.

“It’s about who can create the newest color, the newest fin type,” Hang explains

Griffin recalls that there used to only be veiltail and double tail betta fish when he started collecting. Veiltails have smaller fins, and double tails have a genetic trait that causes them to have two tails.

But these types eventually gave way to others, including the more ornate halfmoons with their half-circle shaped tails. And from there came crown tails with prominent rays, rose tails that seem to have overlapping petals and giant bettas that dwarf their smaller relatives.

“There’s been a lot of development as far as form,” Griffin says.

Breeders are also finding combinations that yield new colors. The development of metallic colors—with fish scales that look like shimmering metallic armorplate—currently has collectors excited.

Ying says when he was a boy, there were only three colors to choose from: blue, green or red. In those monochromatic times, he recalls, spotting a rare yellow betta “was like you saw a pot of gold.”

Now, colors run the gamut. But there is one color he says remains elusive: deep purple.

“This is one color that has been eluding a lot of breeders,” Ying says.

Easy to care for

Bettas are also highly collectible because they’re very easy to care for.

With a special organ called a labyrinth that allows them to breathe above the surface of the water, they can survive in unaerated water. That’s why they developed in rice paddies, small ponds and large puddles, and, when they’re sold, will thrive in small jars or vases.

Compare that to fish that demand a full-scale fish tank with pumps and filters, and it’s easy to see why bettas are desirable pets.

“In today’s fast-paced world, not enough people have time for a full-scale tank,” says Ka Ying, owner of Beejay’s Bettas.

So, people collect them to look at or to breed on a small scale.

Intriguing and interactive

Though bettas can subsist in nothing more than an ordinary glass of water, they all have their nuances, Hang insists.

“Every fish has a different personality.”

For example, you might have a timid fish, one who’s shy when feeding while another aggressively feeds, showing off its fins when it sees you and producing bubbles to show its strength and fertility.

He likens the fish’s finnage to fingerprints, each one unique.

“There’s no two fish that are the same,” Hang says.

Ying regards collecting the fish as a form of self-expression, with an owner’s preference showing through the bettas’ colors, forms and behavior.

“Buying a betta is more an expression of your personality,” he says.

For Hang, the fish are also an expression of Hmong cultural identity.

“They’re like a symbol of our homeland,” he says.

That’s because bettas have historically been found in rice paddies during harvest season in southeast Asia. In the low waters, they’re easy to come across. If you see a series of bubbles come up, scoop up some water in a cup, and you’ll likely catch a betta.

Hang’s personal favorites are the halfmoons, with their 180-degree tails that fan like a peacock’s. “They are the most challenging to get the perfect fin type; to get the perfect color; to get the perfect form.”

The fish “display” like this when they see another betta, to show off, and as a sign of aggression.

Show fish and ‘tough’ fish

While a lot of the betta fish in the three stores on Arcade are pretty, brightly colored show fish, the stores also carry fish with a heritage as fighters.

Describing the difference between fighting bettas and the decorative show breeds, Hang says: “You have an Abercrombie preppy boy ... then you have the fighters. Fighters are kind of like the hardcore motorcycle guys.

They’ve got a nice tough look. They’re big; they’re bad.”

The dark blue fish are more sleek looking and subtle than their showier counterparts. It’s these fish some enthusiasts make fight in their homes, even gambling on the outcome. The fish peck at each other, pulling off bits of each other’s fins, sometimes even killing each other.

Though none of the store owners say they support betta fish fighting, the general sentiment is that what happens to the fish after they leave the stores is at the discretion of the fish owners.

“We don’t encourage betta fighting,” says Yang, but adds, “It’s up to the person that’s buying it” whether or not the fish fight.

Hang says though he doesn’t support fighting per se, he sees it as a cultural tradition that’s being kept alive.

“I respect the fact that people preserve it,” he says, adding that the fish are naturally territorial, and inclined to fight in the wild.
Griffin says the IBC’s position is against fighting.

“The IBC is 100 percent against fighting unless it is for approved scientific research,” he says.

“There are pockets of the Asian community where we see the fighting going on, but it’s not that common, not like rooster fighting,” he notes.

For 9 to 90 year olds

East Sider Bee Yang, 20, stopped by Hang’s shop recently to help his brother find a fish, and scope out the selection.

He owns about 10 bettas, which he keeps simply out of an appreciation for the fish. He likes to keep a variety of colors, and is also breeding the fish. He’s in the market for a matching female for one of his halfmoons.

Breeding them, he says, is relatively easy.

Though he doesn’t support fish fighting, he says many of his friends keep the fish to fight them. They pick out fighting bettas, looking for aggressive, healthy fish, and then put the two in the same tank, to see which fish fares better, and bet on the outcome. The fish often die, he says.

Whatever a buyer’s goals, the fish come in price ranges from kids’ budgets to serious collector investments.

The fish can be as cheap as $3.99 for a veiltail, but can also get quite pricey. Plakats, known as the more traditional betta, cost $8 at Hang’s shop, while the showier halfmoons cost $15, and larger, more ornate show fish cost $35, as do giant bettas.

Then, there’s the wild fish, which. because of their distinct origins, can easily go for $200 per pair.

Ying says the ease of buying and keeping betta fish has helped elevate the hobby to the world stage, where people from around the globe can participate, thanks to both the ease of keeping bettas and the immediacy of communicating with other enthusiasts.

“It’s a hobby that the world can share,” he says.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


From fish clubs to betta shows

Because of the variety available, people across the globe are getting turned on to collecting betta fish, says Gerald Griffin, president of the International Betta Congress.
“Our organization (the IBC) has never been bigger,” he says, “and we continue to grow at a relatively steady rate.”
The IBC hosts international fish competitions, where breeders compete to produce the best colors and fin shapes, not unlike a dog show.
Betta fish clubs are popping up in Japan, throughout South America, and Australia, and there are well-established clubs in Europe and southeast Asia.
The vast majority of betta fish shipped worldwide come out of their native southeast Asia, where breeders can make a relatively good living selling the fish to overseas buyers.


The Betta Shop: partner in Thailand

Tony Hang, owner of the Betta Shop near Arcade and Wheelock, started his store about 4 1/2 years ago out of a basement spot in the same building.
Now selling from a highly-visible main-floor shop, Hang grew up going to fish stores.
He keeps a direct contact in Thailand who breeds the fish and competes with other breeders. Hang’s father visits the breeder every other year.
The breeder, whom he calls Uncle Daeng, is essentially an overseas business partner.


BeeJay’s Bettas: see them onscreen

Ka Ying, owner of BeeJay’s Bettas, started selling the fish out of a 12-by-12-foot stall at Hmong Village on Johnson Parkway.
After about a year, he moved to a spot right near the intersection of Arcade and Maryland Avenue.
Like the other stores on Arcade, Ying prefers carrying only fish that have been hand-selected from breeders.
He’s been into bettas since he was 9, when his father BeeJay bought him a betta “so I didn’t mess with his goldfish.”
His father’s passion for raising fish rubbed off, and now, he’s carrying on a family tradition. Ying even named his store after his father, who has passed away.
He gets his fish from Thailand, where most of the betta fish in the world market come from. Breeders in Thailand have all sorts of branding and nomenclature. A couple of the breeders Ying works with are Aquastar71 and Banleang Bettas.
Ying posts all his fish on a YouTube channel so potential buyers can observe the fish’s behavior, colors and fin structure.


Betta World: a quick study

Khoo Yang, owner of Betta World, came into the hobby by chance. He’s trained in computer science and was working a job in information technology when a friend proposed they open up a betta shop.
Later on, his friend decided to leave the business, and Yang took over full ownership.
Betta World was the first shop on Arcade Street, which comes as a point of pride to the 32-year-old.
Yang handles all the international fish importing for the three stores on Arcade Street.
Yang says the job is more challenging and more enjoyable than computer programming.


 
Poh-tay-toe or poh-tah-toe
 
The pronunciation of the word betta is another form of preference that fish owners can express -- there are two prononciations. 
While some prefer a softer pronounciation of the fish's name, saying "beh-tah," others pronounce it "bay-tah." 
Hang's a firm believer in saying "beh-tah," explaining that that's more accurate to how it would be said in Thailand.
Griffin seconds that, saying as it comes from an Indonesian word with the same prononciation.
Yang, on the other hand, says "bay-tah," but is less insistent about it. "Bay-tah or beh-tah, whatever sounds good to you." Ying also says it this way.

 

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