Koi carps in Chinese restaurants
August 25, 2008 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Ever notice the fish tanks with koi carp near the entrance in many Chinese restaurants? A friend told me that they are actually there to indicate (perhaps through the number or type of fish?) whether the restaurant owner has paid up to the local Chinese mafia (triad). Is there any truth to this or is it just another urban legend?
posted by sour cream to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've never heard this before, and I'm having trouble finding information about it on the internet, which leads to believe that it's not even an urban legend so much as your friend fuckin' with you.

However, this is a pretty awesome urban legend, playing up fears of organized crime, an exotic Other, hidden conspiracy, and swimming fishies. So I think you start spreading this around as much as you can.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:41 AM on August 25, 2008 [5 favorites]

(you should start spreading this around, I mean)
posted by Greg Nog at 8:41 AM on August 25, 2008

I've asked, and been told, that it's a luck thing, like those little praying cats and street numbers that have 8s in them, but no 4s.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:46 AM on August 25, 2008

Yeah, this doesn't sound true at all, or at least true anywhere in my region. I can only think of maybe two or three restaurants with a fishtank up front, one of which has been closed for years, and in San Francisco alone there are hundreds upon hundreds of Chi-Am restaurants. I think I've seen maybe one restaurant koi tank in Chinatown proper where one would assume Triad influence would be strongest since there are so many other cultural and economic ties "back home" in the area.

If the Triads use fish to determine who pays up, they're not doing a very good job of getting paid!

(I'd also question this even reaching "urban legend" status; I've never heard any such thing, and I've heard some of the more obscure and ignorant ones.)
posted by majick at 8:48 AM on August 25, 2008

I was told it was for luck as well.
posted by answergrape at 8:49 AM on August 25, 2008

Based on your brief description, this has got to be an urban legend.

- Anyone can build a fish pond in their restaurant, and the Chinese Mafia would come in, see it, and say "Oh, they're cool. Let's go check out the next one."

- Can you picture Chinese Mafia members standing over a fish pond discussing the type of fish, or more hilariously, trying to count them?

- A Chinese restaurant here in my town in Montana has such a pond, and the Asian population here is so small, that the Chinese Mafia would have to consist soley of the restaurant owners and employees. And I can't imagine that if such a Chinese Mafia exists, that its members would fly here (or drive through the Badlands) in order to look at the pond.

It's certainly possible that the origins might have something to do with that, but the inefficiency of the system might explain why we hear so little from the Chinese Mafia.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:49 AM on August 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

Cursory search at Snopes doesn't find anything - perhaps submitting it to them might result in an answer.

I say *doubtful*.
posted by jkaczor at 8:50 AM on August 25, 2008

Feng Shui ?
posted by Baud at 8:51 AM on August 25, 2008

In some restaurants the fish tanks are functional. You get to pick your meal and when it's served you know it's fresh. Maybe the koi tanks are not the same but come from the same place?
posted by rdr at 9:22 AM on August 25, 2008

I think koi are just nice to look at.
posted by meta_eli at 9:28 AM on August 25, 2008

In San Francisco the protection symbol is kumquat trees and azalea plants. Or at least it was back in 2001, that may have changed.
posted by Nelson at 9:33 AM on August 25, 2008

posted by damn dirty ape at 9:38 AM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think your friend was messing with you, the same way that a friend of mine messed with me when I was about 10 and he was about 13. We were at Burger King, and I was chewing the ice in my drink. He looked at me very seriously and said, “You know, when you chew ice it means you’re a pervert.” Now I can’t NOT think of that when I’m chewing ice.

Dammit. It just occurred to me that now, every time I see such I pond, I will think “Chinese Mafia.”
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:57 AM on August 25, 2008

Seriously - do you imagine that the Chinese Mafia is so slackly run that the best way they can imagine to keep track of who's paid their protection money is to see if there are any fish outside? I'm sure they know how to use spreadsheets and stuff... It makes no sense, as much as chain-links around numbers plates to tell people (who?) that the driver is a crack dealer...
posted by benzo8 at 10:11 AM on August 25, 2008

It's for luck, and also to beautify, I suppose. Goldfish/Koi symbolise wealth and running water = money coming in.
posted by monocot at 10:30 AM on August 25, 2008

(And the above symbolism was from feng shui. I'm Chinese.)
posted by monocot at 10:31 AM on August 25, 2008


There is a small Chinese restaurant in Durham, NC which has a fishtank. I kind of doubt there is a huge Triad presence here ...
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:54 AM on August 25, 2008

Fish also feature in Chinese New Year symbolism because the word 鱼 "fish" is pronounced the same as 余 "abundance"; it's a rebus for prosperity. I'm no expert on the restaurant trade but that could be relevant, though the feng shui suggestion seems good too. Here in Beijing the tanks with fish in are there for diners to select the one they want cooked for them.
posted by Abiezer at 11:29 AM on August 25, 2008

To annoy everyone who has posted above me, I'll throw this out there...

If fish are lucky, and Chinese restaurants tend to have fish outside of them, I'd guess that if you're pissed off at a Chinese restaurant it would be pretty easy to kill their expensive Koi as a warning of what's to come...
posted by twine42 at 12:26 PM on August 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

As others have stated above, I doubt that good standing with the Chinese mafia would hinge on your ability to tend goldfish.

I eat at a lot of Chinese places that keep fish tanks, but the fish aren't usually koi - they're Arowana, which are said to resemble dragons and are therefore double the luck for your Chinese restaurateur. Arowana can get pretty big in a large tank all by their lonesome, but it takes a long time. So the folk wisdom hereabouts is that if some place is sporting a hefty arowana (over a foot long), it suggests that the restaurant has been around for a good number of years and therefore must enjoy steady business due to their serving excellent food.
posted by krippledkonscious at 4:42 PM on August 25, 2008

A quick google brought this link:

"Aquariums Join the Five Elements Together in One Expression

Aquariums gather the five elements of Wood (plants), Fire (fish), Earth (sand), Metal (rocks), and Water into one dynamic feature. When maintained properly, an aquarium attracts prosperity into your home or business. Stagnant water, however, is bad Feng Shui. Fish help keep water circulating."

That's why. Basic feng shui. However, I am now going to circulate this urban legend, because it's brilliant.
posted by saturnine at 5:20 AM on August 26, 2008

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