• Joel K. Adair

The Dying Art of Hong Kong's Bamboo Scaffolding Industry.

The Hong Kong’s skyline has become known for its glass, steel, and concrete structures, but the bamboo structures that have helped build the city are still very recognizable and have played an historic role in the construction process of almost every building in Hong Kong from some of it’s oldest to modern high-rises. Bamboo is the largest member of the grass family and is viewed as a symbol of Chinese tradition and values. The techniques for building with Bamboo have been passed down for generations and date back at least 1,000 years or more.  Bamboo is much lighter and cheaper than steel tubing of the same length, making it easier and faster to pull up and down the side of high-rise construction sites . It’s an affordable and flexible material for Hong Kong’s overwhelmingly fast paced construction industry and on average, Hong Kong uses about 5 million Bamboo rods every year. 

Like many trades in North America, it’s getting increasingly harder to attract new young talent to the labour force. It’s even more difficult when the future of the trade seems to be in question. Bamboo scaffolding has now been banned in mainland China, and Hong Kong remains one of the few places where official training and schooling still exists in the bamboo scaffolding trade. But many still worry that the bamboo scaffolding industry may fall out favour in Hong Kong or be replaced by the metal structures used elsewhere and despite it still being widely popular, I did notice several of the new building sites in Hong Kong have already transitioned to metal. 

There is additional uncertainty in the industry caused by a dwindling number of bamboo importers. The industry could be faced with potentially more headwinds in the years to come from issues regarding the supply chain and environmental regulation.  Attempts to import bamboo from Thailand or switch to synthetic or plastic bamboo have had limited to no success. 

Currently, there are about 1,700 registered bamboo scaffolding workers and roughly 200 scaffolding companies operating in Hong Kong. That’s according to the Construction Workers Registration Board. It would seem as though future of this deeply historic trade is in danger and it’s only a matter of time before it’s completely phased out, with its lack of new blood and the diminishing supply of raw material. 

As an observer of the city of Hong Kong with my subjective westerner views I would like to think that the bamboo scaffolding trade can still serve in Hong Kong for many years to come. From a practical stand point many will argue that Bamboo is still a cheaper, cleaner and less destructive to the environment versus any other metal alternatives. In a very modern city like Hong Kong, that’s growing and changing at a pace that seems to have no limitations and no end in sight, the idea of using a building material that comes directly from the earth and that can’t be simply reproduced in a factory, in my opinion, has some charming values. It takes almost three and a half years of growth and preparation before it can be used for construction purposes and provides a natural contrast to a very unnatural and man made setting. Which seems appropriate considering that it’s a time honoured traditional building technique that requires the skill of a tradesman, the acrobatics of a gymnast and the mind of an artist.