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Monday, October 13, 2014, 08:44

The bamboo ladder to the sky

By Luo Weiteng

The traditional art of erecting bamboo scaffolding has lived up to the building industry’s expectations despite the advent of the steel age. Industry veterans now want greater public recognition of these techniques to help preserve an ancient, valuable architectural skill and the future of bamboo culture in Hong Kong, Luo Weiteng reports.

The bamboo ladder to the sky
The bamboo ladder to the sky

Trussed-out bamboo scaffolding is one of the two most common types of scaffoldings used in Hong Kong.

The gleaming edifices of Hong Kong’s iconic skyline are testimony to ultra-modern design and craftsmanship. Yet, many of these skyscrapers have reached their lofty heights under the skilled hands of builders perched aloft the most primitive scaffolding made of bamboo.

With a tradition dating back some 1,500 years, this technique entails constructing intricate webs of sky-high scaffolds sturdy enough to bear the weight of legions of workers. It’s rarely seen outside Hong Kong anymore. The mainland, where the technique originated, banned it years ago for buildings more than seven stories, considering it too dangerous.

“Hong Kong is the last stand of bamboo scaffolding. People for a long time lived with bamboo scaffolding, which shot up as high as 90 stories. They wonder how this age-old industry can survive in the concrete jungle,” said Flord So, a 30-year veteran scaffolder and chairman of the Hong Kong & Kowloon Scaffolders General Merchants Association.

In the good old days, he recalled, business focused strictly on bamboo scaffolding. Today, he said there’s no choice but to use steel on some jobs.

“There is still a market. Bamboo is cheaper and less destructive than metal alternatives. But the stocks of bamboo are going down,” he said.

Bamboo once was ubiquitous in Guangdong province and Guangxi Zhuang autonmous region. But urbanization has been tearing through the old groves. Supplies of bamboo have declined since the 1980s. So was able to deal with that. He found supplies from Thailand.

“Now, bamboo prices in Thailand has skyrocketed. It’s almost twice than that of the mainland,” he said.

Another problem plaguing the scaffolding business is labor shortage. Young people in Hong Kong aren’t interested in construction work.

CF So, president of the Bamboo Scaffolding Association of Hong Kong (BSAHK), said it’s been tough hiring new workers and could get even tougher.

There used to be an apprenticeship system done the old-fashioned way. “They would live under the same roof with their masters for years. The master would teach them bamboo scaffolding hand by hand,” he said.

It’s not like that anymore. Young people take a month’s government-funded training course at the Construction Industry Council (CIC) Academy. Then, they are qualified to be hired.

The bamboo ladder to the sky

A wide bamboo scaffolding structure embraces the entire facade of a newly constructed building.

The bamboo ladder to the sky

The Bamboo Theatre in West Kowloon serves as a tribute to the fast vanishing art of bamboo architecture.

Skills passed on

“It breaks the master-apprentice relationship. Frankly, we’d rather pass on the craftsmanship to our own apprentices than to CIC graduates, who respect CIC instructors as their masters, not me and the old hands at construction sites,” CF So said.

Construction Workers Registration Board statistics showed that in Hong Kong, there were 1,867 registered bamboo scaffolders as of May this year and roughly 200 bamboo scaffolding companies engaged in reshaping the city’ skyline.

Newly qualified scaffolders earn about HK$12,000 a month.

In 2013, Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union increased the minimum daily wage for experienced scaffolders by 16.7 percent to HK$1,400.

“That minimum wage applies only to veterans. But most green hands mistakenly assume they can earn that much. When they learn they can’t, they job hop,” said Timmy So, assistant-president of BSAHK.

“Green hands hesitate to join us. We are equally hesitant to recruit and train them because of the high insurance premiums,” he told China Daily.

The current insurance premium for bamboo scaffolding workers is 41.43 percent of wages. The government tacks on an extra 10.80 percent.

“If we recruit a veteran scaffolder at a HK$1,400 minimum wage, I have to pay HK$624.66 for his labor insurance every day. His compulsory third-party liability insurance will cost HK$50 a day. For every old hand, I spend about HK$693 on his daily insurance premium,” said Timmy So. “It’s nothing short of a huge financial burden for employers.”

“From the perspective of insurers, scaffolding companies are always unwelcome as policy-holders,” said Victor Chang, a member of the BSAHK committee.

Second-highest risk trade

Scaffolding has been listed by the government as the second-highest risk trade in the construction industry, next only to steel bending & erection.

“Under the Employees’ Compensation Insurance Residual Scheme, insurers were forced by the government to sell insurance to us but with many strings attached,” added Chang.

Scaffolding companies are required to keep insurance up to date twice a day on every scaffolder working for the company.

“It’s time-consuming. Not all companies have offices and manpower to do that,” said Chang. But they have no say with insurers since it is illegal not to cover scaffolders by insurance.

“Some scaffolding companies buy insurance only for a few workers, pretending that they have covered all employees and giving them something to present to government inspectors,” Chang said.

Flord So said that unregulated insurance coverage in the industry may reinforce the public’s perception that bamboo scaffolding is unsafe.

According to Labour Department statistics, among the 22 incidents involving serious injury or fatality in the construction industry last year, six of them involved workers falling from bamboo scaffolds on construction sites. “But many of these accidents are avoidable,” Flord So said.

Some scaffolders won’t bother to wear safety belts while other construction workers deliberately damage bamboo scaffolding at construction sites because they think it hinders their ground work.

What’s worse, he said, the Code of Practice for Bamboo Scaffolding Safety, released by the Labor Department in 2001 and revised in 2009, falls far behind the latest technological advances in the industry.

CF So said he hopes to see a standardized code or practice in the industry in the near future.

“The growth of our industry has been greatly restricted. We think standardized and professional bamboo scaffolding is conducive to our industry’s future, and will make us recognized by the public.”

His view was echoed by Flord So, who is seeking cooperation with architects and designers.

“Bamboo scaffolding is far more than a career choice,” he said. “It’s also a part of the distinctive bamboo culture in China. With the help of architects and designers, I hope it will not be taken as a low-class profession and bamboo scaffolders will no longer be looked down upon.”

William Lim, a city-based architect-cum-conceptual artist whose “working language” is bamboo, welcomed closer cooperation.

This architectural legacy is evident in his works, including the large-scale bamboo installation “Ladder” and the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre.

Still, he has an ongoing battle getting government approval for his installations because many are judged as structurally unsafe, based on Western criteria.

Lim urged the government to apply to have bamboo scaffolding listed as part of the intangible cultural heritage in Hong Kong.

“So far, most Hong Kong people only see bamboo as a material, a “backward” one in a hyper-modern environment. They fail to recognize the culture and art values behind it,” said Lim. “I feel optimistic about the future of bamboo culture in Hong Kong. But there remains a lot of work to be done.”

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