Bamboo Scaffolding – Dan Waters
In 1957 I led a class of building students to a building site in Central District, Hong Kong, to see an exhibition of Acrow, tubular steel and tubular aluminium scaffolding. The exhibition aroused interest in the industry and elsewhere and there were those who prophesied that the use of bamboo scaffolding was drawing to a close. But while in Mainland China and Singapore steel and aluminium scaffolding are popular today, this is less so in Hong Kong.
In February 2014 I went for a stroll up the Mid-Levels Escalator. All told I spotted nine bamboo scaffolds, including both small and medium sized, most of which had been erected for repairs or alterations. In turn, the number of tubular metal scaffolds I counted was one. But bamboo scaffolding, which is cheaper, to erect, is also commonly used when a new, high-rise building of 40 storeys or more is being erected. Steel has an advantage if the scaffold needs to be load-bearing, but China fir uprights are sometimes introduced into bamboo scaffolding, at intervals, for the same reason.
I recall questioning a bamboo scaffolder in SoHo, Hong Kong. A little to my surprise, he was forthcoming. ‘We have saam goh si foo’ (three masters) he explained to me in Cantonese. He continued that there is the legendary sage, Yao Chao Shi, who is reputed to have lived 5,000 years, ago. He is said to have taught people, during the ‘Great Chaos’, how to build crude structures, including nest-like shelters in trees to afford protection, including from wild animals. This led naturally to bamboo scaffolding which has a long history in southern China.
The second ‘master craftsman’ (who was also an inventor), my informer told me about, was Lu Pan who lived around 500 years before Christ and who is the patron god of all those employed in the building industry. The third is Wah Kwong who has a ‘third eye’ in the centre of his forehead. This enables scaffolders to be able to judge measurements accurately without the aid of a rule.
Over the centuries there have been few changes regarding the technology of bamboo scaffolding, but one major change, which I remember, occurred in the 1970s. For lashings previously, scaffolders used narrow strips which were cut from the sheaths of bamboo which were pre-soaked in water to make them more flexible. In the late 1970s there was a switch to plastic lashings and a scaffolder carries a bundle of these dangling from his belt. After the lashings have been cut through, and the scaffold dismantled, the plastic lashings are often left lying about and, unfortunately, these are not biodegradable.
Bamboo scaffolding may be considered as primitive without being old-fashioned, time-saving without being insecure and economical without being impracticable.
Although bamboo appears to be rather flimsy one decided advantage is that ‘it bends before it breaks’. Few accidents have been recorded using bamboo scaffolding. Although it is not easy to employ safety belts as scaffolders are required, by nature of the craft, to keep moving around. The normal practise is for the scaffolder to ‘hook’ his leg over a length of bamboo and to temporarily ‘anchor himself down’.
Up to the 1950s the life of an apprentice scaffolder was hard. It was largely ‘fetch and carry’ and it was some time before he was allowed to even tie a knot. If he disobeyed his master craftsman he was scolded or beaten. ‘Tricks of the trade’ are seldom made known to those outside the trade. There is a special culture that goes with the craft and there are mainly unwritten rules such as those who erect a scaffold should take it down as they know any peculiarities of that scaffold.
This article was first posted on 26th February 2014.
For more information about scaffolding I refer you to the following:
- Ho So, The Craft of Chinese Scaffolding. Ho So Kee Construction and Scaffolding Co. Hong Kong 1974.
- Waters, Dan, ‘The Craft of the Bamboo Scaffolder, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 37, 1998, PP. 19-33.
- HK Memory Project, the Culture of Bamboo Scaffolding. http://www.hkmemory.hk/collections/bamboo/All_Items/Bamboo_images/201106/t20110613_34555.html
- Hong Kong Industrial History: A Brief Account of the Accompanying Role Played
by Technical Education and Training – Dan Waters in Newsletter 4
- Technical Education and Training : Part Two – Dan Waters in Newsletter 5
- Industrial Developments in Hong Kong: some personal observations – Dan Waters in Newsletter 7
Wah Kwong, the ‘God of Fire’, is considered as one of the Masters by bamboo scaffolders. Wah Kwong is also seen as the patron god among opera troupes, goldsmiths, silversmiths, incense and funeral-paper staff.