A discussion with Josh Sim

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Josh Sim might be the most successful aquascaper ever, with a list of awards that stretches on and on. Nathan Hill caught up with him to find out more of the man behind the legend.

For as long as I’ve been paying close attention to the International Aquarium Plant Layout Contest (IAPLC) rankings, one name has appeared consistently at the upper reaches — Josh Sim. 

With a style that I would describe as the essence of the Nature Aquarium, Josh’s designs go far beyond simple planted layouts. He has a talent for creating aquaria that look simultaneously ancient and modern, with a mastery of the contrast between light and dark. Somehow he manages to ensure that not an inch is wasted, while never offering a tank that looks too busy. Every tank tells a story, and every tank accomplishes the goal that is the grail of aquascapers everywhere — to transport the observer to some undefined moment in space and time where there is only nature. Of course, I had to catch up with him to find out more. How could I not? 

PFK: Josh, huge thanks for joining us. Let’s start with your background. Where are you based in the world, what do you do for a living, and what’s your home like? 

Josh: I am a Chemical Engineer by profession and currently working as a General Manager in a manufacturing company. I live in the southern region of Malaysia, in a city called Johor Bahru. I’m a father of three young kids, I’ve followed the hobby of aquascaping for 15 years, my home is not exactly a place that you can call tidy — there are always some toys, wood or rocks here and there about the house. 

Were you a fishkeeper before embracing aquascapes, or did you go straight in to planted tanks? 

I liked fishkeeping ever since I was a kid, perhaps due to the influence of my father. I used to keep local fish that I caught from rivers or streams near my house in plastic containers. Sometime I would ‘rescue’ the guppies or swordtails from my father’s arowana tank and stash them in one of my many containers — my father would have given them to me had I asked, but as a kid I felt more heroic if I rescued them without his permission. 

This early hobby more or less died off and was completely forgotten when I went to college, as it was impossible to keep anything when I was sharing a small rented bedroom with my classmates. Then, in 2008, one of my colleagues introduced to me Crystal Red Shrimp and I was hooked. With more resources at my disposal (by now I was a working adult), I started buying a lot of the necessary equipment and shrimps to start the shrimpkeeping hobby. Unfortunately, due to a lack of experience and without proper knowledge of their care, I killed hundreds of CRS, so I started researching how to keep them alive and that was when I stumbled across an article by Takashi Amano on aquascaping. I learned that plants can help purify the water and keep the fauna alive. That was the first time I knew about aquascaping and the rest is history. That was 15 years ago. 

What’s your current list of accolades in aquascaping? You’ve won a lot of contests…

Yes I’ve been lucky enough to have won a few. These are my top-10 rankings from various contests so far:

  • 2009 – International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest (Japan): Silver Prize, World Ranking # 4 
  • 2011 – Aquatic Gardener Association Aquascaping Contest (USA): 3rd Prize
  • 2012 – Aquatic Gardener Association Aquascaping Contest (USA): 1st Prize
  • 2013 – International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest (Japan): Silver Prize, World Ranking # 4 
  • 2013 – Aquatic Gardener Association Aquascaping Contest (USA): 1st Prize
  • 2014 – Aquatic Gardener Association Aquascaping Contest (USA): 3rd Prize
  • 2015 – International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest (Japan): Bronze Prize, World Ranking # 6
  • 2017 – International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest (Japan): Grand Prize, World Ranking # 1
  • 2017 – Ista International Aquascaping Contest (Taiwan): Grand Prize, World Ranking #1
  • 2017 – China International Aquascaping Contest (China): Grand Prize, World Ranking #1
  • 2018 – Aquatic Gardener Association Aquascaping Contest (USA): 2nd Prize
  • 2018 – Ista International Aquascaping Contest (Taiwan): Grand Prize, World Ranking #1
  • 2018 – Sumida Special Achievement Award (Japan)
  • 2019 – International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest (Japan): Grand Prize, World Ranking # 1
  • 2019 – Ista International Aquascaping Contest (Taiwan): 2nd Prize, World Ranking # 2 2019 – Ista International Aquascaping Contest (Taiwan): 4th Prize, World Ranking # 4
  •  2020 - International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest (Japan): Silver Prize, World Ranking # 3
  • 2021 - International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest (Japan): Bronze Prize, World Ranking # 6

What other creative pursuits do you have? 

I was into photography and painting but had to give them up due to time constraints. Currently I am also into jungle plant collection and cultivation. I’m not sure if it falls under ‘creative’ pursuits though.

Talk us through how you prepare for a layout. Do you sketch ideas down on paper first? 

My layout always starts from a concept or a story. At this point of my aquascaping journey, material availability or technique is no barrier, and I can basically do whatever I want as long as I have a concept — which doesn’t make things any easier though, because a good concept is the hardest thing to come up with. I don’t do any physical sketching of ideas first, as everything is in my head. But I do search the Internet for pictures and drawings that are close to my concept and try to start from there. 

Read the rest of the feature in the May issue, available to read instantly on our digital edition HERE  or purchase the print edition HERE.

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