There are over 1,700 registered bamboo scaffolders in Hong Kong, yet the practice of this unique industry is diminishing due to shortages in labour and material.
Bamboo scaffolding was first introduced to the building industry in Hong Kong immediately after colonization in the 1800s. This method was widely used in the building of houses and multi-story buildings (of up to four stories high) prior to the development of metal scaffolding in the last 100 years. It was also useful in other construction projects, such as temporary sheds for Cantonese Opera performances.
Bamboo scaffolding relies on physics and engineering principles. Plastic fibre straps and bamboo sticks combine meticulously to form a solid and secure scaffold structure without any screws. Bamboo scaffolding does not need to rest on the ground as long as the scaffolding has a fulcrum for structural support.
Despite the diminishing trade, wherever I walk in Hong Kong I see evidence of bamboo scaffolding that props up the buildings beside the roads or on the construction sites. The labour shortage may be due to the reluctance of younger generations to become scaffolders due to safety concerns, and also the rigorous training involved in order to acquire a license. Older scaffolders generally learned in apprenticeships, and had more hands-on experience.
Material shortages are also a factor in the decline. The bamboo materials were imported from mainland China. Bamboo – which after three years matures to a naturally wide diameter and thick skin perfect for scaffolding – came from Guangdong Province. But over the past two decades, firms have had to look to elsewhere in Southern China, which is a more expensive affair. Attempts to import bamboo from Thailand have so far proven unsuccessful.
When you come to Hong Kong, you may be used to the bright lights of Causeway Bay and the glass skyscrapers of Victoria Harbour, but deeper into the city state you can find more homely signs that you’re in Asia, and there’s no bigger sign than bamboo scaffolding enveloping a new building as you walk past!