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Josh Sim - Aquascaping Powerhouse

Biography Josh Sim - Aquascaping Powerhouse

I am so pleased to bring you my interview with Josh Sim. If you don't know who he is, you should take some time to get to know him. He is one of the world's top aquascapers and consistently ranks in the top works in contests around the globe including the prestigious IAPLC where he's won Grand Prize.

Not only is he extremely talented, he's also a regular guy as you will see. He's more than willing to share with you all he knows about competitive aquascaping without reservation as you can see from his Masterclass on Aquascaping.

It's my great pleasure to introduce you to Josh Sim:

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Who is Josh today? Please share a little bit about where you live, family, what you do for a living.​


My real name is “Sim Kian Hong”, that is a Chinese name and it is hard to pronounce and even harder to remember. So in 2009, when I decided to participate IAPLC for the first time, I thought I should get a name that is easier to remember, so that’s how Josh Sim came about.

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I am 47, my wife, Bernice, and I are married for 16 years and we have 3 kids, Gladys (15), Lucas (12) and Hunter (7). I live in the southern region of Malaysia, a state called Johor. If you want to get a rough idea of the location, imagine I am just 20km away from Singapore but 300km away from the capital of Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur).
I am a chemical engineer by trade and I am now a General Manager in a German manufacturing firm.

What is your typical day like? Any habits/practices you like to do?​

Unfortunately, apart from aquascaping activities, my typical day is quite mundane. I have been working in the same company for 21 years (my first job), getting up at 6am in the morning, reaching company at 7am and knocking off at 5pm – the same routine for the past 21 years and counting. It is quite fortunate that I got into aquascaping 13 years ago to break this somewhat “uninspiring” life style!

Apart from aquascaping, I am also into gardening (for jungle plants like Begonia), cooking, a little bit of photography/painting and a little bit of gaming – currently playing Fortnite with my 3 kids and playing PokemonGo with my adult friends - yes I know at 47 it is a little bit too old for Pokemon but I am just trying to relive the part of my life that was missing when I was much younger.

Where did your interest in the aquarium start?​

It started off with Crystal Red Shrimp (CRS). In 2008, I was very much into CRS, but no matter how I tried, I was unable to keep them alive for long. I probably killed hundreds of them and on the verge of giving up. But I thought I would give it one more try and that was when I did some research and found out that having aquatic plants in the shrimp tank will boast their survival rate.

In order to do that, I started to learn about aquatic plants and from there, I get to know the legendary Takashi Amano and IAPLC. Once I discovered how amazing aquascaping can be, I switch totally from CRS to aquascaping and the rest is history.

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Just a side note – today I can simply throw any shrimps in my tank without special care and they will live and breed like mad.

I first became aware of you from the absolutely amazing presentation you did at Green Aqua. I learned SO much about aquascaping! I can’t thank you enough. Please tell me how that presentation came about and what you were trying to do with the presentation itself? How did you learn all of those lessons and organize them so well?​

That presentation in Green Aqua is the essence of all my aquascaping experiences from 13 years in this hobby. I have been making this presentation in different countries and in a few different languages prior to the Green Aqua event. I just thought sharing like this can be quite useful to the aquascaping community.

When I first started aquascaping, I was searching in the dark and I learn it the hardway – by making mistakes after mistakes, so I can really relate to the newcomer’s anxiety and dilemma without proper guidance. I believe if my experiences (and mistakes) can be shared with the likeminded hobbyist, it could only make this hobby better, whether you are a contest goer or just purely want to make a nice tank at home.

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I have been asked so many times that after I revealed all my tricks and secrets, don’t I worry that people will use it to beat me in the contest? To be honest, I have never thought of it this way. We cannot grow a knowledge if we keep it to ourself, it is only by sharing that a knowledge will grow, evolve and gets better.

You have been at the top of your game for quite a while winning aquascaping contests around the globe including two Grand Prize works for the IAPLC. What do you think is the secret to your success?​

Honestly, I don’t know. I guess it is determination and hard work, yeah I know it is kind of cliché but I wish I had better answer. I am a very laid-back person in general, always relax and like to take things easy. But once I am into something, I will be damn serious about it. I think life is short enough, why make thing hard for ourself all the time. But again, life is too short so we do not have a lot of opportunity to make a mark in our life, therefore when that opportunity comes, go for it in full force.

Today, where do you draw inspiration from for your aquascapes? Describe your process for coming up with a concept.​


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I do not have a fixed process of coming up an aquascapping concept, in fact, every tank is different. The concept can be from anything and everything in our life or around us, it can be from a movie (Congo 2017), from a specific hardscape (Faith 2018), from nature (Dream-On 2019), from a special event (Pure 2020), it can be from anything, It is very hard to follow a certain process, everything is rather intuitive for me.

Thinking about the top competition-winning aquascapes, what three aquascaping lessons do you think they all depict well?​

Impact, Creativity and more impact. In short, the “wow factor” is the most important element in all aquascaping contest.

You don’t want to create a “nice” layout, you want to create a bold one with a lasting impression. A nice layout will get you to Top 27, but a bold one will get you a top 7 or top 700. Therefore, it is up to you whether you want to create something that will secure you a Top 27 finish, or gamble it with an all or nothing approach. In recent years, I go for the latter and it paid off.

Tap or RO?​

I am fortunate enough to live in an area that the tap water is quite soft and suitable for planted aquarium (TDS around 50). So I never have to use RO. I am using tap water that is stored in a big reservoir tank on the roof (for bathroom usage, very common in my country), so typically this water has been stored for few days in the reservoir tank and I can use them straight into my tank, not even anti-chlorine is needed.

What are your thoughts on the role of aquascaping competitions in the planted aquarium hobby? Are they progressing the art form?​

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Aquascaping competition is a double-edge sword when it comes to the development of aquascaping hobby. On the positive side, aquascaping competition has pushed this art form over the limit, over and over again. Without the competition, I believe this art form will stay stagnated or perhaps evolve at a much slower pace. Aquascapers all over the world are producing new and breathtaking tanks years after years because of the competition, therefore it is perhaps an understatement to say that aquascaping competition is the main engine behind the development of this art form.

However, on the flip side of the coin, aquascaping competition has kept this hobby very much behind closed door for the majority of the time in a year. Basically nobody is sharing their tank journal during the progression of the competition tank, that to a certain extend has limited the information sharing and as a result newcomers are unable to learn from the more experience scapers.

For world-class aquascapers like you, tell me about the most difficult aspect of creating an aquascape that will place highly in competitions?​

There is a saying in Chinese, if I translate it directly, I means “the burden of being an idol”. For aquascapers that has been placed highly in the past competition, the expectation from the world (a.k.a, fans) can sometime be a detrimental factor.

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We will always want to do something that can keep us in the high ranking so our “fans” will not be disappointed. We are constantly worried that if one day, we drop out of the top ranking, it will be an embarrassment. Therefore, in order to maintain in the high ranking, we tend to do something that is “safe”, without realizing that a “safe” layout is exactly the reason for not getting into the high ranking again in the modern competition. I was in this dilemma few years ago, I am happy that I am over it now. That does not mean that I can be always in the top ranking, I just don’t really mind how I do in the contest anymore.

What aquascaper (besides Amano) has served as inspiration for you? What about this aquascaper resonates with you?​

There are so many and each of them has their special attributes that is valuable to me as a learning aspect. I think one of the important factors that enable me to be who I am today, is learning how to appreciate each and every aquascapers and their work, irrespective of whether they are experienced ranking toppers or newcomers. EVERY single layout is the result of the thinking process and hardwork of its creator, by learning how to appreciate each and every one of them, it makes me a better aquascapers myself.

Will you be entering 2021? If so, tell us what you can about where you are in the process and how it’s going.​

2021 is a tough year for me, many things happened and I literally do not have enough time to prepare for the contest. Actually, I started my tank earlier this year as compared to previous years, but it did not turn out the way I expected it to be. But I will still participate in the contest, as I said, I do not really mind the ranking or result anymore. I just want to share my work with the rest.

You are also famous for your work, Congo, the Grand Prize winning for in IAPLC 2017. Can you please describe it and what the concept was? What do you think resonated with the judges? What are some of the key design elements that Congo really highlights? Any struggles getting the aquascape ready for photographing?​

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Congo has a long story behind. It all started in 2016 when my youngest son, Hunter, was 3 years old. Hunter has a strange habit, when he likes a certain movie, he will watch it repeatedly for weeks and I am always his best movie buddy.

So there was one period where he was fascinated by the movie “The Legend of Tarzan”, so I watched this movie with him every day, for about 1 month. This movie is about the life of Tarzan, in the forest of Congo. After watching this movie close to 30 times and the image of the Congo forest kind of edged in my mind, with the vines where the Tarzan swings around being the highlight.

Later that year, in September 2016, I attended NA Party in Niigata and my friend Masashi Ono, introduced to me a fish, Golden Congo Tetra in the NA Gallery, he told me that this Golden Congo tetra is very rare and beautiful. At that exact moment, the image of Congo forest and the Congo tetra somewhat merged and the concept of my layout “Congo” is born.

Although Congo won the IAPLC in 2017, but it is a rare Grand Prize layout that did not get the “best aquarium” selection by any of the judges. So the fact that it wins the Grand Champion without receiving any of the best aquarium selection, shows that it received rather high evaluation across the board by all judges. I think it is just that kind of layout that do not give the judges any reason for major point deduction.

The key design elements: dense forest, vines and extraordinary depth. A 2-path design was also not very common at that point of time.

As most of the dense forest layouts, the main challenge is on maintenance. I always had to carefully navigate my hand in the tank during maintenance process so that I don’t accidentally knock off some woods along the way (which I did couple of times actually). Apart from maintenance issue, this tank is considered rather smooth and problem free during the entire progression of the tank (4 months).

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What guidance would you give someone who aspires to get into the world of competitive aquascaping?​

It may sound like a really sh*tty advice but if you are a beginner and have totally no idea how to start a competitive tank, you can choose a top-ranking tank from the past years and copy it completely. I am dead serious. Duplicating an award-winning tank enables you to understand the thinking of a top scaper and learn the technique behind. It is better to copy and learn from some established scapers rather than searching in the dark.

Do not worry about being labelled as a “copy-cat”, you are a beginner, nobody knows you, you have nothing to lose but everything to gain if you do it right. I would not suggest any established scaper to use this method though, this advice is strictly for newcomers. But emulating and copying someone else’s idea can only get you so far, once you have the basic skill and understanding of how contest tank works, you should be creating something that is originally yours.

Tell me about your first car​

My first car was a Toyota, a used car that my father bought for me during my last year in college. I returned the car to my dad after I managed to afford one myself from my first job.

Favorite superhero?​

My favorite superhero is Magneto. Yeah I know he is not really a superhero but more of a villain, but most of my favorite scenes from all the superhero movies are from Magneto, the most unforgettable one is the scene where Magneto is locked up in a cell and he extracted a drop of mercury from a prison officer’s body and use it as a weapon to escape. Epic!! I also think that he is a rather sad character and not a villain by choice.

Do you think you have a style? What is it? Why does it resonate with you?​

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In terms of design, No, but in term of execution, yes. The concept or design of my layouts in recent years are quite different, they do not have a fix style. However, people can still guess that it is from me because of the way I execute my tanks. Friends who are familiar with my works can always recognize my tank through the use of reflection on the left and right glasses and my plants execution. Old habits die hard, it is easy to create totally different layout concept but it is hard to change the way you execute it.

Can a nature aquarium style ever win the IAPLC again?​

Yes of course, I totally believe it can. In fact, I am beginning to think that a pure diorama style aquascape is starting to lose its appeal. The last diorama style layout that won IAPLC is probably Congo in 2017, 3 Grand Champions after Congo were no longer a pure diorama style. 2018 was won by the purest of nature aquarium style layout, while 2019 and 2020 were both won by a hybrid of NA and underwater layouts. So yes, I believe NA stands a chance in future IAPLC, if execute right.

Describe something about yourself that most people don’t know​

I am superstitious!!! I believe that if I tell my friends my tank is healthy, algae will take over soon. I always use 13 types of plants in my tank. I always make sure that there is at least a Yamato shrimp or an Oto/SAE visible in my final photo. I always check the calendar for an auspicious date and time to submit my competition entry.

What are some personal values that make you who you are?​

If I want to do something, I will stop at nothing, no matter how insignificant or how crazy that thing may be. I believe this is also one of the attribute that carries me for so many years in this hobby. If I really want to do it, nothing is impossible. If you want it bad enough, there is no such thing as “impossible” or “difficult”.

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Malaysia seems to have a strong aquascaping community. Please tell me about Malaysian aquascaping and its future.​

I beg to differ! 😊

Malaysia DOES NOT have a strong aquascaping community. The number of people in this hobby are perhaps quite a lot, but there are only a handful of aqauscapers who are really into competitive aquascaping, most others are “farmers” or just into casual “planted tank”. If you look at Malaysia’s past record in the IAPLC, there are hardly any newcomers who are capable of breaking the rank, most (if not all) in the top27 in recent years are from my very small group “Little Green Corner” and basically nobody outside our humble group is getting remotely close to Top27. Having said that, I am really uncertain what is the future of Malaysia aquascaping.

Chocolate or vanilla?​

Chocolate in a heartbeat. Vanilla is for girls.

Favorite food? Favorite drink?​

I love to eat, I think eating is a big part of my life. So it is hard to choose my favorite food, I simply love all good food.

T5 or LED?​

If we are purely talking about growing healthy plants, I would go with T5. I think T5 is capable of growing very healthy plants and fairly easy to strike a balance among lighting, CO2 and fertilization. Algae control with T5 is relatively easy and more predictable. However, I do not use T5 nowadays, LED has taken over all my tanks, I think it is the modern trend and with the sleek design, it is pretty hard to resist. But not in term of functionality.

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Readers of my site are avid hobbyists from around the world. Any words of wisdom you would like to share with them to close out the interview?​

The question I get the most is “how to create a nice layout”. Honestly, I do not know. But I do know a “not-so-nice layout” when I see them. Therefore, the secret is not about how to create a nice one, but how to spot a bad one.

It is through endless adjustment of every hardscape during the setup process and continuous improvement during the entire progression of the tank, eliminating “bad spots” and correcting mistakes repeatedly, until there is nothing “bad” left in the layout, you will then have a nice one. During the hardscape setup process, I probably spend 10% of the time working on the hardscape, but 90% of the time sitting back and try to finding the mistakes or ways to make it better.

Conclusion​

I want to thank Josh for taking time out to answer my questions. He's humble and willing to share his deep knowledge of aquascaping. I look forward to marveling at his creations as he continues to improve on his already immense talent.


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