art, science and business of aquascaping

Steven Chong – the mind of a competitive aquascaper

Steven Chong is a unique aquascaper. He crosses two (maybe three) cultures and brings this into the melting pot of his mind when it comes to his aquascaping. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Steven. I came away full of confidence that there are young aquascapers out there that share Takashi Amano’s philosophical vision, his rebellious (in a good way) spirit, and who are completely focused on reaching similar heights of technical excellence.

It’s not fair to compare Steven Chong to Takashi Amano. And, I don’t here. There will always be only one Amano in our hobby. However, with Steven’s understanding of both American and Asian cultures, I am excited to see how this comes through in his art. I hope he is able to strengthen the bridge between American and Asian aquascaping and inspire a generation of young, hungry American aquascapers.

Meet, Steven Chong…

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

First and foremost, I’m an aquascaper and happy to join you for this interview, Art! Thank you so much for inviting me on your blog!

A bit of background— I’m a Japanese and Chinese American, 34 years old, born and raised in Hawaii but I’ve lived half of my adult life now in Japan. I live in Tokyo with my wife and two daughters, working as a marketing Digital Strategist for IBM.

In the nooks and crannies of life, I also have an aquascaping Youtube channel (Steve Scapes) that is just shy of 10k subscribers; and I try to upload often enough to not get unsubscribed. lol!

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

Steven Chong
copyright Steven Chong

Usually, I go to sleep with my kids at 8 or 9 pm, but wake up at 4 am every day to do marketing work or aquarium work. At the time of this interview, it’s January—the height of IAPLC layout hardscaping season—so naturally, that’s what my mornings are mostly taken up by right now. Since the COVID pandemic started, I’ve barely left my house—being very fortunate and privileged to not be required to.

My professional role designing digital journeys and project managing content creation/advertising rarely requires me to meet people in person. So in 2020, I simply didn’t see anyone after coming back from the TAU Europe events at Green Aqua and Aqua Flora. That said, I love people and events—and hope that better human wisdom will prevail in order to quickly end this crisis so we can get back to them! (for my day job, and for aquariums).

Where did your interest in the aquarium start?

Steven Chong Aquascaper
copyright Steven Chong

Like many kids, I kept tropical fish in elementary school. I was always an animal nerd—the kid who went to the library for recess and read pretty much the entire sections on crabs, shrimp, insects, fish, birds, etc. etc. etc. I was also always into art. My childhood role model and teacher in painting, Hiroshi Tagami, was not only a master painter but kept Japanese Gardens and raised cichlids in his ponds. Painting, nature, living things—they were always strong anchors of interest in my mind and always linked together as well. When I encountered Takashi Amano’s Nature Aquarium, it was a perfect fit.

I first became aware of you from the Barr Report where you wrote a couple of really thought-provoking articles. On Sept 17, 2006 you wrote a post entitled, “Aquascaping Philosophy 101”, discussing the aquascaping art form. You linked to a sketch you did. Tell me about this article and why you wrote it and the one that followed: Aquascaping Philosophy 102?

Steven Chong artwork
copyright Steven Chong

Wow, what a blast from the past! I had to re-read those articles because I had entirely forgotten what I wrote 14 years ago! They really make most sense in the context of the online aquarium community of the time.

Answering the question, these articles were directed at the community, but perhaps should have just been pointed at myself—their main purpose is to define aquascaping as an art form, and hone in on the kind of mindset I thought was needed to pursue excellence in that art, without being “distracted”.

That said, for most people their hobby is their distraction from everything else in life; and it’s a wonderful thing that the aquarium hobby is so multifaceted. Shrimp keeping, moss collecting, stem farming, biotope scaping—there is something for everyone; so many avenues of fulfillment. Being able to cheer for each other’s successes is also important as a community. There are just so many wonders to be found in the possible watery worlds we can create.

What I probably really needed at the time, was to have friends and mentors who shared the same values, and spoke to progressing the dream found specifically within Takashi Amano’s Nature Aquarium World. I found those friends within Tokyo Aquascaping Union a decade later, and within the competitive aquascaping community at large. At the time becoming a top competitive aquascaper was a distant aspiration. Now, it is my reality, and that leaves me with different perspective.

I have a concrete appreciation for what it takes to pursue the top, but also recognize that it is really not for everyone. Doing what I do, but also being an adult with a job and kids, and not a college kid with a laptop and too much free time— I have a greater appreciation for all endeavors by folks putting water and fish into a container in some corner of their busy lives.

How have your thoughts or philosophy of aquascaping evolved since writing those articles? Will you ever write a 103?

I don’t think I would write a 103, or at least not continue that series. I think it was a mistake to take such a narrow view to a wide hobby with so many in it. Perhaps I could write something to help people better direct themselves in their hobby; help them find more success, as I have, by clearly defining their goals and pursuing them for instance.

Whether you want to have a beautiful talking piece in your living room, a nano escape on your desk, or create the IAPLC World Champion layout—each of these is a project that will require your time, resources, and continued maintenance. Success is defined by yourself, as is the reward you find in that endeavor.

A competitive layout is a special type of project, but the process of defining goals, thinking through what’s required, designing, and maintaining an aquarium is a process that is shared. Competitive aquascapers do have knowledge, skills, and insight that could make casual projects even more fulfilling for those who wish to learn.

Ultimately though, the fundamental beauty of nature aquarium is the beauty of the lives existing in the glass box. An aquarium that maintains those lives— has healthy plants and healthy fish— has that beauty innately. You need not do more than this. However, if one chooses to pursue greater beauty, greater artistic excellence beyond that, it is out of some desire for more, a wish to see even more of what is possible; and that is the doorway to what comes next. If you open it, do so with firm resolution. This is the basis of my aquascaping philosophy now.

Today, where do you draw inspiration from for your aquascapes?

Steven Chong Aquascape
copyright Steven Chong

The process for finding inspiration for an aquascape is the most rewarding and most critical step, and so it’s unfortunate that my answer to “where” may be less than enlightening—because it’s basically, “everywhere.”

From photos, books, active study yes, but also music, TV, family, friends, buildings. All things a part of the world we live in, human experience, are part of nature. Amano-san spoke of study of nature, but those words sound much simpler than they actually are.

You have to read behind them, you have to teach yourself to “see” instead of “look.” You must also teach yourself to feel, and break down your feelings. Inspiration is something that must be pursued, but it is not something found so easily by pursuing it. Inspiration is accumulated—say you find a fish that interests you. You devote yourself to really studying it, from a scientific perspective, but also from an artistic one or abstract one. Maybe it takes you several years to come up with an idea for a layout using that fish, but you keep it in your mind as a hint. An amazing layout will be born, the result of maintained discipline, maintained stance to continue to truly study nature.

What is the TAU and can you tell me about who belongs to it? What’s your role?

Tokyo Aquascaping Union + CAU
copyright Steven Chong

The Tokyo Aquascaping Union (TAU) is a group of planted aquarium enthusiasts, originally founded with the goal of strengthening Japanese aquascaping (especially competitively) but that mission became less critical after Takayuki Fukada won for 2 years in a row, the first time in 12 years for Japan to take Grand Prize. Really, at its core TAU has always been a group passionate about the art—friends who found friendship because at the end of the day, they were a very rare sort to find so much joy in the pursuit of artistic excellence in aquascaping.

In another sense, TAU is also a school of aquascaping—one branch of taxonomy in the tree stemming back to Takashi Amano. If Masashi Ono is the first generation of the school, than Takayuki Fukada is the second, and I am the third. There is a loose core of other (very) accomplished members at different stages in their scaping lives/careers, but the 3 of us are the main active members.

TAU has been represented in the top 27, every year of the IAPLC from 2010 to 2020. Of course that is a legacy being continued, but winning contests is no longer the main focus of the group. What is most important is expanding the hobby, our friendships in international aquascaping, and hopefully if COVID ends—find more opportunity to further expand and strengthen those bonds.

Tap or RO?

I use ADA Water, a treatment device that does basic filtration with Carbon and Polypropylene on my tap. ADA only carries this in Japan, but similar products/RO units available in all markets from other makers. That’s also what my closest Local Fish shop (which is also an ADA vendor) recommends, and haven’t had any problems. Similarly, folks will see success by leaning on such local wisdom, and observing/testing their own water for themselves.

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

Steven Chong competitive aquascaper
copyright Steven Chong

If we are using the word “progress” to indicate driving advancement in the hobby, attracting talented people to it, encouraging excitement and innovation, then definitely, yes. I also think that aquascaping is heavily being advanced and helped by social media and innovations in its parallel hobbies/off-shoots like terrarium design, saltwater, wabi-kusa, hardscape competition, and especially the biotope competitive scene (my personal favorite amongst the parallel hobbies). Ultimately, we need to capture people’s time and attention. It’s a competition to do so against every other form of media and hobby, and the competitions are part of it.

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 going to be a good bit of individual variation here, because becoming a top level aquascaper requires several skills, and different folks have different predilections. You meet incredible aquascapers with backgrounds in engineering or photography, for instance, who are extremely good at creating a powerful, photo-real diorama but who really struggle with imagining something new and creative. You find folks who are extremely strong on intuition and the Amano style who never pick up skills to craft hardscape away from its original shape.  You find most folks are not confident at drawing, and many struggle with photography as well.

However, more than anything else, motivation matters. No matter who you talk to, of any style or background, top aquascapers will always point at the strength of a person’s determination and passion as the #1 indicator for who is the best, and who will become the best.

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

They speak to some truth of nature and its beauty; something that touches the raw core of what Nature Aquarium is, was, should be.

Steven Chong on the works of Masashi Ono and Takayuki Fukada

It has to be my two mentors and masters from TAU, Masashi Ono and Takayuki Fukada. Now as to why these two, outside of the obvious “they’re my teachers”… Their layouts stir my soul. They speak to some truth of nature and its beauty; something that touches the raw core of what Nature Aquarium is, was, should be.

In Ono-san’s case it is a product of his experience, but also because of his pursuit of the layout devoted to fish. His love of fish. His fascination with them. His desire to put them at the center of his works— see through their eyes. Ono-san once told me about the miracle of the aquarium for him – to be able to see the fish from the side instead of above as there were no high quality aquariums available when he was a child. That childlike joy has stayed with him this whole time and steers him.

It’s interesting that Fukada-san’s family name means “deep field,” as deep is the word most aptly describing his layouts. Both in the physical design, but in the emotional experience of his work, the layers of depth in experience to be found there… it’s something better felt than explained. There is a sorrowfulness to Fukada-san’s works that speak to me. In Japanese, “setsunai”, the beauty in sorrow or sadness. The eternity of nature, but also the passing of each moment, never to be again. That’s the best I can do to describe it. [Art’s comment: Beautifully painted with words, my friend!]

The connecting thread between their works, and also my own ethos is the belief that “the stronger the feeling for the layout, the stronger the layout will be.” The more deeply you love and study nature, the better you will be at speaking to its “truth.”

You place #2 in the world in 2020 IAPLC, #15 in 2019, #5 in 2018. You’re building quite an impressive resume of top 20 World Rankings. Can you tell me what you think you’re doing the last three years to place so highly? What’s the secret sauce?

Steven Chong Amano-Gawa
copyright Steven Chong

I have spoken above a few times already, but the secret sauce is strength of feeling. It’s passion; it’s motivation. All other things stem from that—study of nature, search for inspiration, composition, materials, hardscape skills, husbandry skills, photography—everything will come to the one who determines to open the door. That is a very heavy door to open, but it’s certainly there.

For instance, the words “I will be in the World’s Top 7 next year.” Whether the words of a fool or words of real conviction, you’ll barely ever hear such words pass lips at all, but one thing is for sure—those who won’t say it almost certainly will not become it.

Tell me about your 2020 #2 work, undying? Can you describe your vision for it and the process to bring it to life and photographing? Why do you think it resonated so well with the judges?

I have spoken about the planning process for this scape at length on my YouTube channel, Steve Scapes, but I’ll give an abbreviated version here. It started with my continued pursuit to put the viewer in the eyes of the fish; to show the world from a fish’s perspective. To that end, I thought the idea of an inside of a log would be interesting.

Steven Chong Undying Sketch
copyright Steven Chong

To avoid the layout becoming too heavy, I found the insight of “creating windows” through study of sunken ships. Just like a dead log, a sunken ship has “died” but its structure becomes home and habitat to a host of other life as coral and fish take up every space. I noticed that in great photos of the inside of the sunken ship, there were always windows or pockets that had worn or rusted away to allow light in for the photo. I came up with the overall log structure with this insight. The last piece was finding an appropriate “outside world,” the background to the work.

Steven Chong sketch
copyright Steven Chong
Steven Chong Undying aquascape step 1
copyright Steven Chong

I considered many different possibilities, simple and elaborate. It was hard finding something that both offered visual interest, but would remain cohesive enough through all “windows” of the log. Finally, I came across the image of Everglade swamps—and the image of straight trees with their forms continuing as reflections on the still water surface.  This struck me as a powerful image, speaking to the resilience of trees; a similar theme to a tree shape keeping its form even in death. Simply by mapping and planning this idea as a drawing, it became apparent right away that it simply wouldn’t work visually with a simple sand bottom; I NEEDED the REFLECTION of trees to get the sensitivity and visual balance that I was looking for. The decision to use mirror in this layout was one arrived at via practical consideration; logistical need to solve a problem, rather than a simple desire to use a gimmick.

copyright Steven Chong

I chose Inlecypris Auropurpurea because its standing bars rhymed with the standing trees, and its glistening body with the mirrors used. This was also praised highly in the contest book.

I believe it spoke to the judges because I had a clear understanding of my core sentiment, and it was one aligned with the ethos of Nature Aquarium—the resilient nature of trees; and I devoted everything about the work to speaking to that truth.

Steven Chong Aquascape
copyright Steven Chong

Are you still a member of TAC in the US? Can you tell me what it is and what it does?

copyright The Aquascapers Collective

Yes, still very active in The Aquascapers Collective. TAC is a group dedicated to raising enthusiastic aquascapers in North America. It is oriented towards competitions, but not explicitly about them. Amongst all the different English speaking online communities, TAC really emerged from the sentiment that there should be a space more conducive to critique, and better facilitate those who wish to strive for higher objectives in the hobby.

There are two levels existing as Facebook groups—the “Lodge”, which is more casual and open, but with the understanding that your works are up for critique, and Lodge members know that they should not be disheartened by harsh critiques. Then there is the “Crucible,” which requires members to compete in at least one contest a year in order to maintain their status as Crucible members. This group is quite small, its setting is more akin to TAU or one of the other contest-oriented aquascaping unions, so I find myself more at home in the Crucible and consider the most active members there as close friends. Probably, for TAC members who shift from Lodge to Crucible, increased engagement from me will be one of the most notable changes they experience.

While the US and Canada are not, by any means, powerhouse competition countries, the names that you would expect might appear on the IAPLC black pages—Jeff Miotke, Shawn McBride, Hiep Hong, John Pini, Dou Mok—they’re all my close friends, teammates, rivals and folks who have helped me in my own growth; all members of the TAC Crucible.

What guidance would you give someone who aspires to get into the world of planted aquariums?

Most old hands in the aquascaping community would give the advice, “find a mentor,” and that’s still sound advice. Let me offer something different, and that is to say that often the best answers to be found to solving different problems are outside of what’s labeled “for aquascaping.” Whether we are talking tools, materials, tech, problem fixes, try to think outside the box and outside the aquarium store.

My other piece of advice for those looking to improve quickly would be to start with the diorama/progressive style first—even if you are most inspired to mimic Amano’s works, you will improve faster if you start with the diorama style.

The reason is that it will make you much better at the NA style/traditional style in the long run if you have the understanding of size, weight, composition that you can develop easily as hard skills in the diorama style. Your perspective either looks real or it doesn’t. Your hardscape either feels natural, or it doesn’t. It matches your drawings or doesn’t. Much easier to objectively track your growth.

Meanwhile, excellence in the NA style relies on instinct, and instinct is harder to grasp and best accumulated by experience. If you keep scaping, keep progressing, keep improving, you will naturally improve your instinct. But if you jump off the deep end you’ll be left wondering why your works never look like those of Hironori Handa and Ngo Truong Thinh. The NA style looks easily obtainable, but what you see executed by masters is the result of years of accumulated experience—and at the end of the day, you’ll still be left without the skills you would have gained as a diorama aquascaper.

copyright Aqua Design Amano Co., Ltd.
copyright Ngo Truong Thinh

Tell me about your first car

You mean the Japanese Public Transport system?

[Art’s comment: LOL!]

Favorite superhero?

Honestly, I never was a big fan of the superhero genre. How about Son Goku from Dragon Ball? Japanese anime always resonated with me, and I think in my generation not only were cartoons more prominent than comic books, but many of us found in Goku a much more compelling hero—one who trained excruciatingly for his powers instead of being bestowed them as precursor, and one who faced epic foes in challenges that expanded over whole seasons rather than being solved in 30 minute clips. The Shonen Manga format that Dragon Ball established of the protagonist chasing his dreams in face of the universe is one I still carry with me, and you could say my own IAPLC journey is another such saga.

To my untrained eye, your aquascapes have always had the nature aquarium spirit – capturing the essence of nature. I’ve seen many aquascapers today lean more to the diorama style that, to me, is more reminiscent of trying to depict a landscape within the confines of an aquarium. How would you describe the “Steven Chong” style of aquascape and what are your thoughts on nature aquarium versus diorama-type styles? Can a nature aquarium style ever win the IAPLC again?

There is a lot to unpack there so this will be a long answer.

… planting with an NA Japanese sensitivity—this is better done by the mind that hears the music of language rather than the part that does math or calculates forced perspective.

Steven Chong

I’m grateful for your input regarding my layouts. Treasuring the essence of nature aquarium even within a high impact diorama-style work is something I strive to give special attention to. I think it is in part because of the Japanese influence on my work, but it’s hard to say, because this sensitivity does have much to do with one’s intuition. Finding the off-balance of natural chaos, being sensitive to the passage of time. For instance arranging stone in a diorama or Brazilian layout can be completely logic driven, but planting with an NA Japanese sensitivity—this is better done by the mind that hears the music of language rather than the part that does math or calculates forced perspective.

Really, not just mine but all styles, whether we are talking about Indonesian forest diorama, or Brazilian style, or ASN hardcore traditionalism, or Iwagumi, the whole of nature aquarium aquascaping is a taxonomy that all branches out of the starting point, Takashi Amano’s Nature Aquarium World. The different lineages compete, hybridize, diverge or influence each other, but they are all traceable back to the same origin. This is also why it’s basically impossible to separate “diorama” and “NA style” into hard categories—there is too much in-between.

Josh Sim has spoken of seeing them as not as NA Style and Diorama, but instead as “Zen Style” and “Wild Style” which is much more descriptive, focusing on values and qualities instead of vague methodology. [Art’s comment: This is the best aquascaping seminar I have ever seen. Thank you Josh Sim and Green Aqua!]

For myself, I would also focus on the people instead of the aquascapes—and to that end, I describe the aquascapers as being in the categories “Traditionalist” vs. “Progressive,” though there being a natural range and even finding traditionalism and progressivism within the same scaper.

Steven Chong Butterfly Hideaway
copyright Steven Chong

I’ll also comment on how this relates to Amano-san, and with him being sadly but conveniently not here, people are also free to interpret Amano’s legacy as they will and invoke him as they will.

To a hardcore traditionalist, Takashi Amano is the founder of this tradition, and inheriting his will means not only the same ethos, but also inheriting his exact methodology and handing it down unchanged to the next generation.

To a progressive like myself, Takashi Amano was a radical trailblazer who smashed the stuffy barriers of Dutch aquascaping and opened entirely new frontiers of possibility. Takashi Amano is the man I met at the NA Party 2009, where he disappointedly scoffed “Why doesn’t the world show me something, ANYTHING that I haven’t already done before?” Takashi Amano is the man who personally awarded TAU member Toshifumi Watanabe’s mountain diorama scape as “Best of Show.” He’s the man who smiled on a kindred spirit in Takayuki Fukada and, after Fukada-san ranked 5th in 2014 asked him—“are you really satisfied with this?” which began a long conversation where he pushed Fukada-san to pursue the title of Champion. Fukada-san’s 2015 Grand Prize would be the last one Takashi Amano crowned. For progressives, Takashi Amano was a fellow radical, and we inherit not his methodology but his challenger spirit.

Longing – 2015 IAPLC Grand Prize Work | copyright Takayuki Fukada

The tradional style is the mainstream, it’s alive and well and even successful in the contest. 2018 Grand Prize by Hironori Handa was basically an Amano-san re-make by one of Amano-san’s direct disciples. It doesn’t get any more purist than that. Even in this 2020, Josh Sim took 3rd in the world with his traditional layout, “Pure,”— albeit a work with big impact for having been made by a top progressive scaper in Josh. The lines are too far blurred.

My style also kind of threads the needle between traditional NA and diorama, but it is probably more accurate to say that my layouts have that quality because they emerge from the Takayuki Fukada branch, and his layouts have the same quality because we share the same values. My personal twist is being more fast and loose about pulling in a lot of ideas and concepts, but I’m only able to get away with it because Fukada-san taught me how to focus and reign myself in. My other unique take is implementing wild gimmicks each time—Caloglossa algae in 2017, “bottomless” layout in 2018, hidden pumps built into a river diorama 2019, mirrors as water surface canvas 2020—but my strength is in naturalizing those gimmicks, using them in the service of the nature aquarium ethos. My attitude is like this: I won’t lose to any traditionalist in devotion to nature, but my expanding tool kit allows me to pull off expressions from nature that they never could.

Describe something about yourself that most people don’t know

Hiroshi Tagami’s school of art deeply believes in the importance of kindness, because it grants the empathy needed to truly make the art resonate with people.

Steven Chong

Sincerity and kindness are strong values of mine. This is a part of the politics I mentioned, but also a part of my art. Hiroshi Tagami’s school of art deeply believes in the importance of kindness, because it grants the empathy needed to truly make the art resonate with people.

Please share with me your thoughts on US competitive aquascaping today and what you think its future is? How would you like it to be in the future?

Well, the US is still one of the more casual countries in competitive scaping. It isn’t a superpower like Japan or China, and it isn’t one of the upcoming countries stirring a buzz like Spain, Brazil, Malaysia, or Indonesia. Still, it’s not like we’ve been devoid of successes—America surprised the world in 2018 when Hiep Hong and I ranked 4th and 5th, taking 2 of the coveted top 7 spots (a double first for America). We also had 4 in the winning ranks (top 127) including Jeff Miotke and Shawn McBride. Jeff and I have also been invited to China in past years to compete in the on-site CIPS. It is something very new for the US to have even this level of clout and visibility.

The 2018 performance puts us in a hair’s breath of being a real contender country for the IAPLC Nation’s Challenge, a casual team challenge looking at the average rank of a country’s top 5 placers. John Pini joined me in the winning ranks in 2019 to give the US two spots, and in 2020 Shawn and Jeff returned to the winning ranks giving us 3. We have yet to line up 5 in the same year, but if all 5 of these guys can line up their motivation, and add a couple of TAC’s high potential rookies in the mix, the US has potential. If the US sees success, it will be because of TAC.

There’s also my Youtube channel, Steve Scapes, where I talk about a number of aquascaping topics, introducing concepts of advance competitive scaping. I talk about how I do research for my layouts, I talk freely about topics like shadow/light use, reflections, economy of the frame, and advanced fish selection (are cardinal tetras low-tier trash?). Looking at the stats for my channel, the US is the number 1 viewing country—hopefully I can inspire some motivation.

Because, motivation really is the number 1 ingredient. Finding the rare folks who have extraordinary motivation. While we have some consistent high profile aquascapers, notably Jeff Miotke, I’ll put up a challenge to the guys by saying that within the group I do not yet see the motivation needed to become like TAU or Little Green Corner—the new Malaysia/Singapore club that extraordinarily took 6 of the top 27 spots in 2020, including 3 in the top 7 as well as the Grand Prize.

Even so, looking at the US hobby overall, there’s no doubt in my mind that those who have joined the TAC Crucible are special— they are the exception to the rule. If there are more guys or gals out there who have the guts to go to the top, I’m sure TAC will be where I meet them. Hopefully some are subscribers to Steve Scapes!

Chocolate or vanilla?

Both, + Peanut Butter.

Favorite food? Favorite drink?

Favorite food, got to be noodles but debatable as to which type. Ramen, Somen, Spaghetti, Pho, Soba, Won Ton Mian, Chop Chae, Pancit Bihon. I’m just saying there are way too many variations for me to choose any one… I could probably pick a different noodle dish for every meal of the week, and that might be my happiest week ever. Let me just pick 3 as exceptional examples.

Nam Ngiao is a south east Asian rice noodle dish with a meat + tomato + blood based soup. The version made by Ashuu Shokudo close to IBM Japan’s office totally rocks my world (though it’s highly likely it doesn’t include the traditional pig’s blood…). Cabbage and bean sprouts piled high on top of pho noodles in this rich, fruity, and spicy broth (plus I usually dump a bowl of chili pepper vinegar on top of it). Incredible.

Cold Soba from Tokamachi, Niigata. Hand made Soba is the best way to enjoy the highest excellence of cold noodles, but this version with extra seaweed in the batter has extra slurp to maximize the sense of coldness. Amazing with tempura on a summer day.

E-fu Mein are Chinese noodles that are once deep fried before being re-softened by boiling. Their texture, soft and spongey from the frying but still possessing a “bite”, is truly unique and special and amazing when soaking up Chinese sauces and stews. Especially a good match for seafood, will never forget eating it with lobster meat under a cheese sauce in Hong Kong. Also Hong Kong has the best Wonton Mein (a favorite of mine since childhood), Shrimp Wonton with super thin “Cai-Mian” Cantonese shrimp ramen noodles. That’s one of my absolute favorites, and I’ve got IAPLC Champ Dave Chow on record saying he’ll take me to the #1 place for this if I can visit Hong Kong again some day.

As for drink, though I don’t drink often, I have yet to meet the wine that I didn’t like!

T5 or LED?

LED, but I actually haven’t use T5’s before. The Maxilite Pro’s that I’m using now work very well! Props for the natural colors and ability to even reach plants in shadow.

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

Thanks again, Art, for taking the time to put this interview together, and re-write into a blog.

Time is so valuable, and just as it is at the core of everything, it is at the core of aquascaping. While nature goes on as it always does, almost nothing good that we experience in this world happens without someone taking the time to do it. For the hobby, it’s the same—turning your feelings and time into effort, with human hands and minds being what makes things happen. Putting plants and fish into shops. Turning rock, wood, and sand, into hardscape. Turning an empty tank into a window of nature and art in the human soul.

My words of advice would be to value your time. Think of goals that make sense to you, and open the door to making it happen—and when you do, value the time spent making, but also sitting before the aquascape.


I want to thank Steven Chong for the time he took to share so much with us. As I mention at the start of this conversation, I truly hope that Steven takes his understanding of both cultures and comes up with something new and exciting for both regions pushing the boundaries of aquascaping. So far, he has shown very willing to do that.

Please learn more about Steven Chong at his YouTube Channel, Steve Scapes, and also on Instagram @steve_scapes.

Would love your thoughts on Steven’s interview in the comments below.


About the author

Art Pennom

Art Pennom is the founder of where he writes about the world of planted aquariums and aquascaping. In the past, Art founded, and the ScapeFu Podcast.

Art lives in Miami, Florida

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art, science and business of aquascaping

Art Pennom

Art Pennom is the founder of where he writes about the world of planted aquariums and aquascaping. In the past, Art founded, and the ScapeFu Podcast.

Art lives in Miami, Florida

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Thanks for reading ScapeCrunch.

I limit my time on social media but I do use Facebook to connect with friends like you. Feel free to shoot me a friend request.

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