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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of bamboo scaffolding

By Grace Chong 20 April 2021

Header image courtesy of @christianrenelegere (via Instagram)

In a jungle of concrete and steel, there are plenty of articles and photos documenting the mountains, beaches, and flourishing gardens that we have inserted our skyscrapers and malls next to. 

But in the cracks and incomplete structures, prior to the addition of buildings to our ever-growing skyline, is another organic material that we barely bat an eye at—bamboo. It seems an unlikely contrast in a city of rapid growth, industrialisation, and smog: “low-technology” bamboo scaffolding holding its weight against monster buildings and the unforgiving glare of mirrored windows and machinery.

In the mid-1950s, at the height of Hong Kong’s construction and development era, there were many sub-industries within construction. Wheelbarrows were a rarity so shoulder-pole carriers were used to transport material around a construction site. A small but flourishing industry paid $1.50 a day to hammer used nails straight for re-using, and cement was mixed on-site, rather than in the massive trucks we associate with construction sites now.

Yet, it is bamboo, a quiet and unassuming plant, that has survived through generations of political, social, and economic change. Despite the adoption of tubular steel and aluminium scaffolding across Asia, Hong Kong remains the final frontier for this traditional craftsmanship that has built the city that we call home. Here’s a look into the history of bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong and the place it holds in our past, present, and future.

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Gods of the sky for the kings of the sky

Much like most traditional crafts, bamboo scaffolders have their own gods that they honour in hopes of safe passage and construction. Yau Chao-shi, a legendary sage, is said to have walked the earth during the period of “great chaos” when the universe was first constructed. Yau took humankind under his guidance and taught them how to build basic bridges and huts. Nest-like shelters amongst the trees offered protection from wild animals and became the early stages for bamboo scaffolding. 

Another worshipped figure is Lu Pan. He was a craftsman, inventor, and expert builder during his time as a mortal. His skills and prowess led him to become one of the first mortals raised to the level of deity. He is now honoured as the patron god of workers in the construction industry. 

And perhaps most direct in his protection is Wah Kwong, the god of fire. He is also the patron saint for scaffolders, opera performance troupes, incense and joss paper shop staff, as well as goldsmiths and silversmiths. When an insulting opera was staged in a bamboo theatre, the Jade Emperor issued an order for all bamboo stages to be destroyed. Wah Kwong defied these orders and earned the eternal gratitude of bamboo workers. In images of Wah Kwong, he is depicted with a third eye—because bamboo scaffolders rely on “eyeballing it” when they work, it is believed that they are assisted by Wah Kwong’s third eye.

In the hey-day of bamboo scaffolding, workers would hold ceremonial processions and offerings were made prior to construction to appease the gods. Bamboo loops were hung from belts to keep spirits and ghosts at bay. These days, signs of the patron saints and gods are tucked away in the corner of construction sites, a few incense sticks, some fruit, or on major holidays—not front and centre but never fully gone.

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A brief history

To understand the historic depth of bamboo scaffolding, one needs to look no further than the most famous architectural masterpiece of historic China—the Great Wall. Sections of the bridge were constructed with the assistance of bamboo, a methodology that later reappears in the famous painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival from the Song Dynasty.

Bamboo scaffolding’s deep roots in Hong Kong construction began largely in smaller buildings and outdoor theatres. It only grew in prominence due to a cacophonous mix of war, trade breakdowns, and fire. In the 1950s, the chaos of political re-organising and the establishment of the Communist Party led to an influx of refugees to the south and to Hong Kong, sparking a population increase of 60 percent.

Hong Kong was not equipped for the staggering number of bodies and thus, squatter housing was haphazardly set up to accommodate the new arrivals. A lack of proper ventilation and regulation made these areas a hazard, and sure enough, the 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire left more than 50,000 people homeless in a night. 

Sir Alexander Grantham, the governor of Hong Kong, set up an emergency housing response team that later became the early stages of Hong Kong’s current public housing system. At the same time, the Korean War led to a dramatic shift in Hong Kong’s trade. Due to China siding with North Korea, Hong Kong, then a British colony, placed a trade embargo on China for wartime goods. Closed-off Chinese markets meant Hong Kong had to push local industries along with opening new markets to maintain employment for a growing population.

Such factors created the perfect storm for the sudden growth and expansion of property development in Hong Kong, an industry that boomed in the 1960s. Workers, industrialists, and businessmen who had fled China now rushed to fill the gap in the manufacturing industry, offering skills and labour. All of this rapid development allowed bamboo scaffolding to flourish in the local industry.

Traditional training 

It’s a fine line to draw in describing bamboo scaffolding as a traditional craft. Construction workers who work with brick and cement or the metal counterparts of bamboo are scarcely going to refer to their work as a craft. And yet, bamboo scaffolders sit at a unique junction of tradition, skill, and industry. One of the biggest criticisms and risk of bamboo scaffolding is the difficulty in streamlining and homogenising the process.

To become a bamboo scaffolder, the traditional process was to become an apprentice for a master craftsman. One’s first year of training was similar to a general laborer or a glorified personal assistant, running errands, with minimal to no climbing involved. This period was for the apprentice to become familiar with bamboo identification and selection during deliveries and fieldwork. It also allowed the weak to be weeded out, given the need for a clear head and strong stomach at dizzying heights!

The second year introduced the erection of bamboo scaffolds, learning and developing their skills in tying knots. Bamboo scaffolding knowledge was rarely written and distributed, in part to protect the knowledge of the masters but also the difficulty of putting it to words. Craftsmen develop a sensitivity to their work materials, mixing their knowledge of the structure and physics of project with the art and sensation required to make the appropriate adjustments and ties. 

In their final year, apprentices branch out in the types of scaffolds they learn whilst training under the same master. Just as the need for bamboo to mature to the appropriate thickness for scaffolding purposes, so does an apprentice need time to hone their skills.

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Don’t be bamboozled

In recent years, bamboo scaffolding has all but disappeared across Asia, leaving Hong Kong as one of its final building grounds. Just as many predicted in the late 1950s, metal scaffolding has taken the world by storm. However, Hong Kong’s skyscrapers continue to lean on the notched sides of bamboo branches, and for good reason. Bamboo scaffolding is one of the most sustainable construction methodologies, utilising the strongest yet lightest material. Relative to iron, bamboo is superior in three areas: cost, weight and durability, and time.

Bamboo is a lot cheaper and more cost-efficient both in initial purchase and storing. Unlike metal, so long as the bamboo is not resting on the ground, it can be stored anywhere with minimal concern of thievery. Bamboo is relatively maintenance-free and can be disposed of organically after its max use. Despite their appearance and weight (or lack thereof), bamboo has an impressive strength-to-weight ratio, unlike metal scaffolding. 

This all feeds into the third benefit of time—bamboo scaffolding is six times faster to set up and 12 times faster to dismantle. Metal scaffolding structures are also designed off-site prior to construction, which leaves little way for flexibility should final designs change. Bamboo pieces can be shortened and replaced as needed, and in the face of Hong Kong’s infamous typhoon season, are flexible enough to bend with the wind.

Bamboo scaffolding: A dying industry?

With all the praise and fanfare for this seemingly perfect craft, why is bamboo scaffolding a dying trade? It boils down to a lack of people entering the field. The laborious and repetitive work, coupled with a relatively dissatisfactory pay and extremely high-risk, has turned the industry into an ageing population. Even generational households in the construction industry have transitioned into niche fields that are slightly easier.

The Hong Kong government has taken steps to protect this trade, implementing a certification programme with coursework and licensing process to address concerns over safety. A code of practice for bamboo scaffolding safety was issued, and prospective bamboo scaffolders can opt to take a training course or apprentice directly with a scaffolding company prior to taking the necessary examinations. 

But ultimately, many scaffolders have pointed out that an increase in educational degrees and opportunities, coupled with parents not wanting their children to monkey up the sides of scaffolding with no harness, has led to a sharp decrease in employees. With a majority of current scaffolders over the age of 50, this could spell the end of the bamboo forests that have acted as the backbone of our city’s architecture.

Or perhaps the bamboo scaffolding trade is not vanishing as fast as we thought it might. Almost 70 years ago, experts predicted that metal scaffolding would quickly overtake the bamboo branches, and yet, the sight of the pale green and tan poles framing the sides of half-constructed buildings is a sight common across generations of Hongkongers. And as our city races forward in innovation and development, who better to have a front-row seat to the change than the very hands constructing our city? We can only dream of what those “kings of the sky” see as they climb above our heads, building our skyline as we look up from below.

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Grace Chong

Former editorial intern

Having grown up in a creative community, Grace can often be found taking photos, journaling on train and bus rides, and writing poems to her friends. She is fond of asking friends, family members, and strangers personal questions about their happiness and mental health. If she could ask the whole world a question, it would be, “What was the last thing that made you laugh?” She is an avid fan of Radiolab, Mamamoo, volleyball, and Shin Ramen.

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