FishyHub Interview with Ikan Billy

We recently have the privilege and honor of interviewing Little Ong, also known as Ikan Billy (his aquascaper moniker), who conducts aquajar and minipond workshops for beginners and experienced aquarists alike.

Aquajars or jarrariums are small aquatic vessels of an underwater ecosystem of plants and aquatic creatures. With only the power of light – no filter, no oxygen bubbler, no CO2 – and your loving care, you can have a thriving aquatic garden that’s a constant feast for your eyes.

Through his workshops, you will learn about the ecology of a freshwater aquarium, designing and crafting of a miniature aquascape, planting methods and maintenance techniques to ensure that your beautiful jarrarium will have a special place in your room or on your desk.

Discover what goes on behind the scenes and mind of Little Ong that led him to turn his passion into something that everyone can share and enjoy.

  1.  Please tell us something about yourself and your background

    I’m in the creative industry where I have been a designer, photographer, illustrator and curator among the various hats that I have worn. I work as the creative director of fFurious, a creative agency that I’d co-founded in 1999. The work we do spans across multidisciplines from branding to digital to environmental for wide ranging clients from the arts to consumer products to the semiconductor industry.

  2.  What inspired you to start Ikan Billy?
  3. I’ve had pets most of my life and generally just love nature. I’ve always had a few pots of plants that I’d be taking care of. I was even in the gardening society in secondary school at some point.

    The last time I kept fish was the early 2000s but back then it was all old school, plants were tied to lead weights and the substrate comprised pebbles. Maintenance was a painful chore, it meant catching all the fish out, emptying the tank to scrub down before filling everything back up. The internet wasn’t as informative as it was now, so it was all trial and error, but really just full of errors. I remember once buying a cool fish to add to my tank and jaw-droppingly see it eating up other fish.  

    Fast forward almost 2 decades later, I got married and we had a 3 year old boy whom we wanted to introduce many cool and fun things, especially activities that we enjoyed in our own childhood. Longkang fishing was one fun pastime where I remembered going waist deep and sometimes chest high into streams and drains to catch guppies and bettas. We realised that there were fish farms here that offered that in a controlled environment. Basically, we’d pay $15 for a bucket and had an hour to catch as many fish as we could from their stream. We caught a few mollies which went into a vase when we got home. It was sweet watching our boy get curious about the fish and eager to feed them. That resulted in taking him out to various aquarium shops during the weekends. That vase eventually became full and evolved into a cube tank that my mom unearthed from her storeroom, which then grew full as well, resulting in the purchase of a 2nd hand 2 ft tank.

    At that time, I tried to figure out how to get the plants to grow better by researching on the internet. In the process, I stumbled onto the world of planted tanks and aquascaping. As my work required me to stay in the studio till late, I remember thinking that it would be wonderful to be able to be greeted by a beautiful lighted tank of plants whenever I come home late. 

    So I kept reading, experimenting, and tried and tried, until there was a glimmer of hope that I was finally getting somewhere with it. I was about 2 years into planted tanks then and felt that I had made sufficient progress to share what I was doing. I thought it would be a good idea to document my journey in aquascaping and fishkeeping, and Ikan Billy the Instagram account was born. 

    If you speak the Malay language, you would get where the name Ikan Billy comes from. It references ikan bilis, which means anchovies in Malay, while Ikan by itself translates to fish. There’s a Malay dish in Singapore we love called nasi lemak (nasi translates to rice while lemak to fat) which comprises rice cooked in coconut milk and served with all kinds of condiments such as curries, fried chicken, peanuts, pickled vegetables, spicy seafood and of course, fried ikan bills. It’s something that we eat any time of the day, and hilariously, my wife would often mispronounce and order “nasi lemak ikan billy”.

    My intention was to hide behind a moniker so that I could learn, try things out, be slammed and, most importantly, progress without any pressure from friends or family. I was just a small fish in the midst of this amazing community of aquascape gurus, and being that my real name is Little, referencing the tiny anchovy made perfect sense.

  4. What challenges did you face while starting up?
  5. At the start, I was pretty much figuring out things on my own. I didn’t know of any friends who were into aquascaping so it was a whole lot of trial and error and trying to put into practice what I read. My thing was vinyl records then and eventually I met Ben, a fellow music head who had been aquascaping for years and my knowledge accelerated from that point on when I had a kaki to talk things out with.

  6. Is it easy to do aquascaping? Is it expensive? Is it hard to maintain?
  7. Aquascaping is part science and part design. Having a good grasp of the biology of plants and aquatic animals is just as important as being skilful in the designing and crafting techniques involved in creating an aquascape. 

    It doesn’t have to be expensive. You can go to the extreme of having expensive lamps, external filters, CO2 systems and branded tanks. Or at the other end, have a jar with a simple and good lamp. 

    Maintenance is critical though. If you involve a good mechanical filter, the job is half done for you. You’ll still need to put in some elbow grease no matter what your setup is. Changing water is the simplest part, depending on the tank size, you could swap water in 15 minutes. The time-consuming part, and the most enjoyable and therapeutic part for me, is actually the tending of the aquascape. The trimming, replanting and rearrangement of the underwater gardens take up the most time but it’s rewarding as the more care you put into them, the more beautiful they become.

  8. From where do you or most people draw inspiration to create beautiful aquascapes?
  9. I’d like to think that we get our inspiration from the natural world but more often than not, we would get inspired by other aquascapers’ work whether it’s off Instagram or Pinterest. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as that’s how design works, in that another design could be a starting point for you to create and add on your own vibes. 

  10.  Why should people take up this hobby/ activity?
  11. Beyond the visual pleasure you’ll get from gazing at a beautiful aquascape and being enthralled by the aquatic creatures for hours, aquascaping by itself is a therapeutic activity to do. To state the obvious, you’ll need to like plants so if you’re already a plant parent, you’ll likely find aquascaping to be more rewarding as you’ll be going beyond just maintaining a potted plant to creating and caring for an entire underwater garden with animals within. It’s a slow hobby in that plants grow slowly and the animals too, so it’s good to train your patience. It also builds up a sense of responsibility, since you have to nurture your collection of nature, and feed the animals. That’s a reason why I find it especially great for kids to take up this hobby as it teaches them about life and caring for nature.

  12. How has the circuit breaker period affected this activity?
  13. When the circuit breaker happened, I remember it was quite confusing at the start as the aquarium shops had to stop their business. Getting supplies was difficult but mostly, I just missed the random visits to the shops. I had been planning for my aquajar workshops just prior to that and that had to be suspended. What was interesting though was that with the slowdown of work and WFM, there was more time to develop this hobby and my Instagram account, especially in the area of jarrariums which I had more time to experiment and create more of.

  14.  How many aquariums, aquascapes do you have at home?
  15. I have 12 at home while there are around 20 at the studio.

  16. Show us your proudest creation and what is the source of creativity that drove this creation?
  17. Aquarium

    If I had to choose, the pond in my balcony would probably be the most complex setup I have done. When our balcony was renovated due to spalling concrete, my wife wanted a green wall and I wanted a pond, so I had to figure out how to combine both and delved into aquaponics. Taking about 4 months to complete, the green wall is hydrated by the water from the tank below. There were just so many aspects that I needed to learn and experiment on as this was uncharted territory, from creating a paludarium-style tank, to getting water pumped up the wall and returning clear into the tank

  18. Any advice in general that you can give to beginners in aquariums and aquascaping?
  19. It is important to first understand the science of aquariums, followed by the crafting part of them. This way, you won’t be discouraged by fish death and algae blooms. And of all the equipment, besides the tank itself, don’t scrimp on the lamp as the light source is the most important part for plant growth.

  20. Tell us about the workshops and services that you provide.
  21. It has been 6 months since I’ve started conducting Aquajar Workshops to teach the creation of jarrariums for both adults and children. A jarrarium is a miniature aquarium in a small tank, bowl, jar or vase that does not require a filter, oxygen bubbler or CO2 injection. With only a lamp, good setup and regular detailed maintenance, nature will do its job in enabling aquatic life to flourish. There is also a mini pond workshop for past Aquajar Workshop participants and advanced aquascapers, and new workshops to be announced. 

    The Aquajar workshop teaches the fundamentals of aquarium ecology by delving into the science of sustaining life in a tank, the approach to designing an aquascape in a contained space, introduction to aquatic plants and planting techniques, through to maintenance methods, and includes the tools, lamp and a completed jarrarium to bring home. 

    With the knowledge gleaned from a workshop, participants are able to independently create more jarrariums and even filtered tanks on their own, and many have done so. I know of a past participant who now has 12 jarrariums and tanks!

    Besides the workshops, I accept commissions to aquascape tanks and some of my completed jarrariums are available for purchase. I also retail tools that I frequently use in my aquascaping and various lamps via walk-in appointments. I’m working towards an online shop that will enable more people to purchase them soon.

    Visit Ikan Billy at Instagram @ikan_billy Facebook @ikanbilly

Ikan Billy
Little Ong