Why Hong Kong Uses Bamboo Scaffolding and Meet the Spider-Men Who Climb It: A Visual Explainer

Location and history

Throughout Chinese history, bamboo has been widely used in construction. Bamboo scaffolding can be seen in one of China’s most valuable works of art, Along the river during the Qingming Festival. The work, by imperial artist Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145), is famous for its depiction of daily life on the streets along the Bian River in Bianjing, which was the capital of the Northern Song dynasty.

Along the river during the Qingming Festival
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Hong Kong scaffolding bamboo is usually sourced from the Xiaoxing area in Guangdong province and the Guangxi area in southern China bordering Vietnam. Bamboo is usually transported to Hong Kong via Macau.

bamboo anatomy

Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world and in some cases can reach 60 cm per day and reach 40 meters in height. Bamboo has thick underground roots called rhizomes, which can grow quickly, creating new shoots a few feet away. The internal cellular structure of bamboo allows it to resist compression, making it an ideal material for scaffolding.

Why bamboo?
Compared to steel, bamboo is much lighter, six times faster to assemble and 12 times faster to disassemble. It is also a fraction of the cost. Bamboo scaffolding does not require fancy machinery or complex tools to erect, just skilled workers with nylon ties. If erected correctly, bamboo scaffolding can be stronger than steel and much more flexible. The resulting structure is also easy to modify, if necessary. Bamboo scaffolding can be used for whole structures or part of them. In Hong Kong, it’s common to see “bamboo balconies” protruding from the sides of buildings where renovations are taking place on individual, multi-storey units. A bamboo pole can also be cut to fit an awkward space, which is ideal for Hong Kong, where building spaces can be tight amidst the densely populated maze of buildings.

Characteristics of bamboo

In Hong Kong, two types of bamboo are used in most scaffolding: Kao Jue (bamboo pole) and Mao Jue (bamboo hair). Mao Jue is thicker and stronger, about 75 mm in diameter, with walls at least 10 mm thick. It is used as a charging stand. Kao Jue is thinner, about 40mm wide, and is used for platforms, braces and horizontal supports. All bamboos are at least three years old and are dried for at least three months. Each piece is approximately seven meters long, can be stored out in the open, and can be used three times before it begins to bend, split, and weaken.

Bamboo scaffolding

They are the true Spider-Men of Hong Kong, scaling dizzying heights with strength, skill and nerves of steel. But the future of the bamboo scaffolding business remains shaky, in part due to a lack of new blood, as many turn to other areas of construction such as bar bending. Today, there are 2,479 registered bamboo scaffolders in Hong Kong.

Depending on the size of the project, scaffolders can spend the whole day on several floors, even having lunch there. Bottles may be needed for bathroom breaks

It can be difficult to erect safe and stable scaffolding on some older buildings with weakened exterior structures

One of the most important tasks is to correctly install the steel supports that support the bamboo structure.

Working in the summer heat of Hong Kong can be uncomfortable for scaffolders. Proper hydration and sun protection are important

Scaffolders face risks every day, whether they fall or are injured by debris

The ground or structure that supports the scaffolding must be solid and level

Requirements for safe and sturdy scaffolding

  • Bamboo scaffolding should only be erected, modified and dismantled by qualified workers
  • The erection of structures must start from the bottom up, from the inside out
  • Work platforms should be at least 40cm wide, free of debris and not overloaded
  • A protective screen made of flame retardant material must be installed to confine falling objects

then and now

Decades ago in Hong Kong, bamboo scaffolders worked at height with basic safety harnesses or none at all. A lot has changed since then and today’s workers need to be trained, licensed and wear proper safety equipment.

Protective equipment required

Scaffolding must be dismantled as soon as construction or repair work is completed, in accordance with Hong Kong regulations. To reduce the risk of accidents, dismantling should be carried out by “trained workers under the immediate supervision of a competent person”, ideally the team that erected the structure.

A group of bamboo scaffolding workers on top of a 25-storey building in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

Training and skills

Many scaffolding skills have been passed down from masters to apprentices for hundreds of years. Today in Hong Kong, most new recruits must complete a year-long training with the Hong Kong Construction Industry Council to obtain a license.

The training involves learning how to build bamboo platforms that are safe and strong enough to hold construction workers at any site imaginable. The hardest part of the job, however, is tying a proper knot to secure the bamboo poles, which can take years to master.

Workers are usually divided into three ranks. Newcomers to the industry are apprenticed for two years. They have basic tasks, such as passing bamboo poles, while learning the trade. Those in the middle rank erect bamboo scaffolding while being supervised by masters – the highest rank – who work with engineers to design entire structures. Pay varies, depending on experience, from around HK$800 (US$101) per day to over HK$2,000 per day (US$254).

Traditions and superstitions

Tradition has it that an apprentice scaffolder finds out if he risks misfortune. If so, a feng shui master may recommend a ceremony to help drive away negative influences. Before work every morning, an apprentice should also pay attention to what he says so that there is no bad omen for him and his co-workers.

Workers sometimes worship deities and wear a special belt that is believed to protect them from bad luck. It is not uncommon for scaffolders to make a “bay sangood fortune ceremony before erecting scaffolding at new sites.

Yau Chao-shi is a legendary sage considered to be the original creator of bamboo scaffolding. The 19th of the first month of the lunar calendar is his birthday, when workers pay homage to him.

Lo Pan, a master carpenter, engineer and inventor is another revered patron of builders and contractors, including bamboo scaffolders. Hong Kong’s only temple dedicated to him was built in 1884 in Kennedy Town.

Wah Kwong is also a patron saint among bamboo scaffolders, especially those who erect Chinese opera theaters. He is believed to have defied the Jade Emperor, who demanded that all bamboo theaters be destroyed after the staging of an opera he found insulting.

Types of scaffolding

1. Double or single layer bamboo scaffolding
This is the construction of buildings or major renovations

2. Truss-out bamboo scaffolding
This is often used as an exterior platform for minor repair work to external drain pipes, concrete spalling and external plaster. The height of the scaffolding must not exceed 6 meters

3. Bamboo scaffolding for signs
They are generally of cantilever construction with a maximum length to height ratio of 4:3. The entire scaffolding is supported by steel wires or hanging poles attached to the structural members of a building

Dismantling process

Bamboo scaffolding must be dismantled from the upper level to the lowest level, from the outside to the inside, and the non-load-bearing parts before the load-bearing parts.

Visual story by
victor sanjinez

Associate creative director Marcelo Duhalde
Additional reports by Fiona Sun
Edited by Andrew London

Sources: The Craft of Bamboo Scaffolder, Dan Waters (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 1998); Guidelines for the Design and Construction of Bamboo Scaffolding, Government of Hong Kong; Evolution of bamboo scaffolding for building construction in Hong Kong from the 1960s to the present day, Frankie Lee Hong Lam (University of Hong Kong); Climbing Scaffolds in Building Construction in Hong Kong (University of Hong Kong); Construction Worker Registration System (CWRS) 2021; Code of Practice for Bamboo Scaffolding Safety, Occupational Safety and Health Branch Department of Labor

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