Hong Kong is one of the last places on earth that still uses bamboo to build skyscrapers.
Hong Kong is a jungle of concrete and steel. But look closely, and you’ll see an organic material that weaves itself through the cracks, up the walls, completely engulfing entire structures.
That material is bamboo, and Hong Kong is one of the last places in the world where it is still widely used as a building material, primarily for scaffolding and seasonal Cantonese opera theaters.
Bamboo has a long history in Chinese culture. It’s been used to make paper, musical instruments, furniture, and even entire buildings. China is home to 500 species of bamboo, which is 40% of all known species in the world.
But in most of China, bamboo has largely fallen out of use as a construction material because of safety concerns. Builders favor aluminum and steel, which they see as higher quality.
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In Hong Kong, bamboo construction remains a viable yet threatened industry. There are few companies that specialize in the craft, and those who do have trouble finding successors.
An art of precision
Unlike steel, which can be cut into precise pieces, bamboo is a plant and therefore much more fickle. Not all pieces are consistent in quality, and they have to manually be tied together, which requires a lot of skill.
“You have to be absolutely precise.”
“If a bamboo scaffolding gets too high without any support, it can bend,” says Youngman Wan, a general manager at SMP Limited, a bamboo construction company in Hong Kong. “When it comes to a project like that, you have to be absolutely precise.”
Wan, who has been in the industry for over 25 years, has seen his share of botched bamboo projects.
“A lot of scaffolding might appear fine after construction,” he says, “but soon, they’ll start bending like they’re dancing. This is dangerous.”
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Because of these dangers, there are specific requirements for sourcing bamboo. A usable piece is three to five years old and air-dried indoors for at least three months.
The preferred length is around 20 feet, not long considering some structures can reach up to 600 feet. In Hong Kong, the best bamboo is sourced from Guangxi and Wuzhou.
The benefits of bamboo
If bamboo is such a difficult material to work with, why is it still used in Hong Kong?
For one, bamboo is sustainable and cheaper to source. It is the fastest-growing plant on earth, with the ability to grow up to three feet a day, thanks to rhizomes, which are underground roots that help bamboo self-multiply.
This means that a grove of bamboo can grow for up to 100 years.
Compared to steel, bamboo is also a much lighter material. It’s six times faster to put up and 12 times faster to take down. If properly installed, bamboo can be stronger than steel and far more flexible.
Two types of bamboo are used in Chinese construction. One is called gaozhu 篙竹, which comes from a species called Bambusa pervariabilis, and the other is maozhu 毛竹, which is thicker, longer, and comes from Phyllostachys edulis.
Gaozhu is used more often to build the foundation of bamboo structures. Most scaffolding is made from gaozhu.
How bamboo artisans are continuing their craft
The characteristics of bamboo make it the ideal material for temporary structures such as scaffolding. In Hong Kong, bamboo is also used to build seasonal opera theaters.
Chan Yuk-kwong, the owner of Wah Bo Engineering, has been building bamboo theaters for nearly 40 years. His family has been in the business for four generations, and he plans to pass it onto his two sons.
“Building bamboo theaters is more complicated [than building scaffolding] because we also care about its interior appearance and overall shape,” Chan says. “It has to be pleasing to the eye.”
The operas performed in the theaters are meant to honor Chinese gods. Bamboo as a material helps add to the spiritual element.
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“The bamboo helps bind everything together in a decorative way,” Chan says, “and allows craftsmen to climb up and down the structure.”
The toughest part, though, is tying a proper knot, which can take years to master. “You can tell if an artisan is good by the knot he ties,” he says.
But what’s tied together will eventually be taken down. When the opera season is over, the theater is dismantled, and the parts are recycled. Bamboo theaters are temporary installations, and an art form that is fading.
“As far as I know, there are no more than 50 independent bamboo theater craftsmen,” Chan said. ”Increasingly fewer people want to join us. The tough working conditions put them off.”
But Chan and his compatriots are determined to keep the trade going.
“Our old teachers taught us to start from the ground up,” says Fatty Hui, a scaffolder at SMP Limited. “I feel satisfied when I can build a structure.”