Swimming with dragons

Witness goes into the heart of Malaysia's multi-million dollar fish farm industry.

Last updated: 02 Jun 2014 07:06
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The highly sought-after Malaysian golden arowana fish has disappeared from the wild. Yet today in Malaysia, buying and selling of the arowana, also known as the ornamental dragon fish, has become a multi-million dollar industry.

Over a decade ago, filmmaker Chew Han Tah learned of the dwindling number of wild arowana, and an obsession was born, much to the chagrin of his wife. Chew is exploring the potentially lucrative business of breeding arowana and is in the midst of moving his family to a new home so that he can upgrade his aquarium for his $30,000 worth of fish.

In this very personal journey into the heart of Malaysia's flourishing fish business, we see what motivates collectors and investors, and what fuels Chew's dreams.

Filmmaker's View

By Chew Han Tah

I first had the dream of making a documentary about the dragon fish 15 years ago. After such a long wait, my dream has finally become a reality, and although I set out to make an informative conservation film, it ended up becoming my own personal story.

Initially, I focused on conservation issues. These days the fish is difficult to find in the wild, and some suspect there aren’t any left. Over the years I have actively sought ways to preserve the species in the wild. But strong demand in the exotic pet market has pushed the fish to extinction.

For a long time, I researched and recorded the lives of my own dragon fish. I took monthly recordings of their growth and even noted changes when they became sick. Just like my own children, I had so much fun raising them.

The ups and downs of keeping the fish have given me the spirit to pursue my passion further. I have also tried to get them to breed in my aquarium, which is very rare. It did happen one time however. A pair of my fish actually bred. It was that moment that made me realise I wanted to capture the breeding process on video. Unfortunately, my excitement was short-lived as all the eggs were swallowed up by the parent fish after a week of being laid.

As an Asian filmmaker, it was difficult for me to get this documentary shown on an international platform, especially as I did not have the experience or the track record of some other big filmmakers. I told myself the only way to make this film happen would be to take part in an international documentary pitching session, which I did at the 1st Asia Super Pitch in 2001 in Singapore. Thankfully, my pitch was selected. But then what? I still needed money and experience to continue the project, not to mention a channel to commission it.

I was eventually selected to participate in Crossing Borders, another pitching session which was part of the European Documentary Network. I and pitched my film to a number of commissioning editors, and eventually my documentary ended up being commissioned by Al Jazeera.

After more than 15 years spent collecting archive video and over 500 hours of family home video – not to mention another year of production and post-production work - my film, Swimming With Dragons, was finally complete.

I have a lot of help and support from my family. Keeping the fish has become an important part of all our lives. We all eat together next to the aquarium and enjoy watching the fish as they swim peacefully around the large tank.

I am happy that I can share my passion with the world and convey exactly what it is like to live with the dragon fish.


Witness can be seen at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2000; Thursday: 1200; Friday: 0100; Saturday: 0600.

Click here  for more  Witness films.


Al Jazeera
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