Lunch break is over and the bamboo scaffolders scurry up the long poles to the top of the construction, their agile bodies swinging from one corner of the frame to the next, cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they reach out and climb higher.
We’re on Lamma Island, where Wong Wing-wah and his team of scaffolders are building a temporary bamboo theatre for a week of Cantonese opera and other festivities in honour of Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. Though Tin Hau’s birthday falls on the 23rd day of the third month of the Lunar calendar — April 29 this year — the celebrations start a week before, with food stalls, dragon dances and the much loved Chinese opera performances.
The festival is especially important for villagers on Hong Kong’s outlying islands, which have traditionally been home to fisherfolk, who pray to Tin Hau for safety. Every year, bamboo scaffolders arrive on Lamma a few weeks before the festival to begin work on a bamboo-framed theatre that will house about one thousand people per performance. With tickets selling out fast, they have to make sure they meet the deadline.
From far away, the structure resembles a huge matchstick or a toothpick house, the bamboo poles knitted closely together with black nylon straps to form walls, a roof and a stage. Metal sheets are laid on the roof to provide waterproof cover and wooden planks laid onto the stage for the actors. The scaffolders work fast, taking about eight men to build the structure within ten days, with another three days required to dismantle the theatre after all the fun has ended.
Hong Kong’s skyline may be famous for glass, metal and steel, but the bamboo that supports it is equally symbolic. Bamboo is much lighter and cheaper than a steel tube of the same length, making it easier and faster to pull up the side of a high-rise or trim down with a machete when needed. It’s an affordable and flexible material to use for Hong Kong’s constant construction.
Until the colonial period, bamboo scaffolding was used mainly for smaller buildings and traditional outdoor theatres. As Hong Kong grew, so did the scale of the scaffolding. The first racecourse pavilion in Happy Valley was made of bamboo until it burned down in 1918. Even today, enormous skyscrapers are built using bamboo scaffolding that reaches hundreds of metres into the sky. Now that bamboo scaffolding is banned in mainland China, Hong Kong remains one of the few places where bamboo “masters,” or si1 fu2 (師傅), are still being trained.
“In the bamboo scaffolding business for buildings, it is getting increasingly difficult to attract young blood,” says Wong, who is 68. “[It’s] too tough of a job. Nobody wants to do it.” It’s another story for bamboo theatres, which are known as daap3 hei3 paang4 (搭戲棚). “I have still seen quite a few young people join in my lifetime,” he says. “We are respected and it really is an art. There is no floor plan – it’s all in the mind.”
While bamboo scaffolding for buildings requires workers to use harnesses and helmets and a more methodical approach, the scaffolding teams for theatres are more flexible, with the master shouting out directions as they go, the team working in harmony as they lay the stronger, tougher gou1 zuk1 (篙竹) “pole bamboo” for the foundation pillars, and the thinner, more pliable mou4 zuk1 (毛竹) “hair bamboo” to keep it all together.
Wong typically uses bamboo from Guangdong, but he increasingly sources it from Guangxi, too. A sturdy pole bamboo costs between HK$100 and $300, while a hair bamboo costs just HK$15 to 20. They can be used about three times before being discarded.
Teamwork is particularly important while working on these bamboo structures; trust is essential when a misplaced step or pole could cause serious injury. The team spends most of their day together, beginning at nine o’clock in the morning and ending at six in the evening, with an all-important tea break at 3pm. “We play mahjong together all the time, even though they keep trying to steal my money,” Wong says with a grins that reveals his sole remaining tooth.
The craftsmen have to be sensitive to the materials, understanding the weight of the bamboo and the physics of the whole construction. It takes three years for bamboo to mature to the thickness required for scaffolding and at least the same amount of time to train someone to use it.
Wong started to learn the trade when he was only thirteen years old. “There were three generations of si1 fu2 that I followed,” he says. “I learned with the famous Chan Ngai – he was well known in bamboo scaffolding circles. My father was not in this profession, but my grandfather was also a scaffolder. I had a poor childhood and when there was nothing else to do, I simply followed and learned.”
Though building a bamboo theatre may be more creative than conventional scaffolding, the Hong Kong government still takes any construction work seriously, so in addition to apprenticing with a master, scaffolders must pass training courses and examinations and trainings in order to be licenced. In a uniquely Hong Kong tradition, there are exhaustive guides and regulations for scaffolding in the government’s Code of Practice for Bamboo Scaffolding Safety.
Wong pulls out all his licenses and stacks them in front of us. There is a certificate for rigger and signaller safety training, a certificate for construction industry safety training, an official certification card for the bamboo scaffolder trade test, a worker’s registration card for the Construction Industry Council, and a trade safety training certificate. Scaffolding may be a traditional art form, but practicing it requires even more certificates than you would find hanging in a doctor’s office.
Wong is qualified to work on both theatres and construction scaffolding, but demand for theatres keep him and his crew busy all year round. “We do all the villages, it is non-stop,” he says. After Lamma Island, they will move onto Tai O, then Sai Kung, then Lantau again. “Bamboo is important to Chinese culture, it is a symbol of strength and peacefulness at the same time,” says Wong. “The opera theatres made from bamboo scaffolding are more pleasant to sit in, there is more natural air flow, so you don’t even need air-conditioning, which in Hong Kong is rare.”
Some worry that bamboo scaffolding may fall out fashion in Hong Kong, to be replaced by the metal structures used elsewhere, but Wong doesn’t think bamboo theatres are going away anytime soon. “As long as there is Chinese culture, we will continue to do this,” he says. “Every time there is a festival, our team is there to set it up. There is the Hungry Ghost Festival, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, the birthday of Buddha, the Monkey God Festival.” He laughs. “The list goes on. The gods are very important to the Chinese.”
So are the scaffolders. “Villages respect us,” says Wong. “When we say we are the daap3 hei3 paang4 people, we often get to ride the boat [to the village] for free, or even get a free meal. That’s not bad at all, no?”
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.