At 820 feet above ground in Hong Kong, you’re so high you can see beyond the city limits; past the neighboring islands and across to mainland China. But even at that height, if you glance sideways you might see a young man with one leg hooked around a swaying bamboo pole, building a scaffold with his bare hands.
He’ll reach down to grip the end of a long bamboo pole, passed up by another scaffolder and swing it elegantly and accurately into place, balancing its weight against gravity. He’ll set it at 45 degrees to the upright and, without stopping, reach down to his waist-belt and pull out a 6 1/2-foot length of thin plastic banding.
With the pole held fast in position against his upright, he’ll spin the banding round and round the two bamboo lengths, tying them tightly together until the pole stops swaying -- another piece in the bamboo scaffold jigsaw is safely in place. He’ll then edge three feet sideways to the next tie point, concentrating hard. His name is Yu On, a taap pang (Cantonese for bamboo scaffolder).
“Every scaffold we build is different,” says On, a muscular, crew-cut veteran of the taap pang who weave together one of Hong Kong’s most recognizable features. “It has to fit the site we’re working on.”
TIED NOT DIED
On, who has been in the trade for decades, now works as a team manager looking after gangs of scaffolders who work on a contract basis. He doesn’t get up into the elegant, delicate bamboo structures as much as he used to, but he hasn’t forgotten how it’s done.
“The important thing is being able to build straight and strong even with curved poles -- and do it fast,” he says. And build they do. Bamboo scaffolding isn’t just used for small jobs. It’s used for massive projects like the multi-million dollar Chatham Gate development in Kowloon, Hong Kong’s bar and shopping hub. Elsewhere it hangs over the tiniest of back streets, clinging to walls and buildings, cantilevering out of windows and stairways, giving access to an army of workers reconditioning, upgrading and demolishing existing buildings.
According to Dr. Francis So, the only man in Hong Kong with a doctorate in scaffolding technology, using the right bamboo is an art as well as a skill. “The best bamboo grows halfway between the river and the hill,” he explains. “Hill bamboo is stiff, but can have kinks in it and too many knuckles or knots. Riverbank bamboo is long and much straighter, but can be too flexible.” Of the thousands of species of bamboo that grow in the wild, only two are used, and mostly grown in China’s Guangxi province.
The two species are Mao Jue for the big verticals and diagonals, and Kao Jue for horizontal struts. The exact dimensions between joints and poles are usually planned out in advance by construction engineers to a standard set of guidelines, but sometimes the site or the building shape demand on-the-spot design. This makes bamboo scaffolding an unusual mix of tradition, art, and skill. And friction.
“The workers use the plastic ties,” explains So, “and they wrap them round a joint six times, really tight. Then they twist the ends of the tie around each other and tuck the twist into the gap between the poles.” So that’s it? No mechanical fastenings, no screws or clamps, no spring-loaded tensioners -- no knots, even? Up to 1,000 feet above ground? “That’s right,” says So. “These huge lattice structures are all held together by friction.”
Its supporters say bamboo scaffolding is more flexible, safer to work on, more resilient and simpler to erect than metal. One thing’s for sure: bamboo is light, so even smaller scaffolders can scramble into position with a 10-pound, 23-foot pole slung across a shoulder. The list goes on: it’s cheap, biodegradable and if you want some more you just grow it.
Bamboo, clearly, is great stuff, but making those wonderful airy structures that creep around the highest buildings across Hong Kong’s neon-splashed precincts and islands takes more than just a great raw material. It takes an experienced bamboo spiderman who can work all day long in difficult and extremely scary conditions, year-round, on a contract basis with no job security. It’s enough to make you wonder if it’s worth it. According to Yu On, the answer is no.
NO JOB FOR YOUNG MEN
“I have three sons. They all followed me into taap pang, but eventually they all gave it up,” says On. They have gone into other construction work, easier jobs. He says scaffolding is very tough, and the pay isn’t that good either. He’s right -- a good scaffolder will typically earn only about $HK1,400 ($180) a day. “The pay rates do go up if there’s a typhoon, when it gets more dangerous,” he says matter-of-factly. “Then you can get double or triple that.” So a good scaffolder can keep himself and his family fed and under a roof, but won’t be buying into any of those apartments he is helping build or maintain.
There are other consolations. Scaffolders are a small, tight-knit group -- the edge-dwellers of the construction industry, so to speak (“some people look down on scaffolders; usually the people who don’t want to study come and work on the bamboo,” says Sunny Yau, senior project manager at scaffold contractor WLS). On weekends, they stick together, heading out for a few beers, or to the racetrack to bet on horses and play cards. It’s a man’s life -- but where are the women?
“There used to be a couple; they managed okay because the poles weren’t so heavy, but they didn’t stay,” admits On with a shrug. But women do feature. One scaffolder says the rugged, dangerous, image worked to his advantage when scaffolding overseas. “It was great! While I was there I hooked up with several different women,” he laughs.
Nonetheless, with a sign-up rate of only around 30-50 new trainees a year thanks to the dangerous image and poor work conditions, the number of certified bamboo scaffolders is dropping. Demand, on the other hand, is rising. Bamboo structures cost 30 percent less than metal ones and are easier to manhandle in tight situations - like fixing and cleaning the thousands of neon signs that cover Hong Kong. Not to mention that they only need two components: poles and ties. “It takes skill to put bamboo scaffolding up safely,” says Yau. “It takes longer, several years, to learn how to do it properly.”
No two bamboo poles are the same, which doesn‘t make it any easier. They can vary in diameter and length, and the quality has to be just right -- not too green, not too dry. A good taap pang worker can select the best poles and rig 1,000 square feet in one day. That’s about 70-80 poles selected, hoisted, positioned and tied. A big construction job could use a total of 215,000 square feet of scaffold. That’s 16,000 individual lengths of bamboo that have to be tied into place by a bunch of guys who work six days a week, every week of the year.
There are accidents. So’s brother was hit by a dropped pole. Luckily, he was wearing a helmet, so the pole glanced off and only gouged a massive chunk out of his leg. The taap pang know the dangers and live with them. Hong Kong has typhoons every year between April and October, and although the high winds don’t usually blow workers off the scaffold, they often smash part of the structure. “That’s when climbing up partly wrecked scaffolds to dismantle or repair can be really dangerous,” says Yau. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.
NEW CITY, OLD TRADITIONS
Because the job has its roots in thousands of years of tradition (it goes back at least 1,500 years), bamboo scaffolders have their share of ceremonies and superstitions. “Parts of the Great Wall of China would most likely have been built with bamboo scaffold,” says So, “and the traditions they had back then have been passed down to us today.”
Taap pang respect three main Old Masters, or Elders. These are Luo Pan, the Master of the Nets, and Wa Quong. All are venerated in ceremonies on their dedicated lunar calendar days, when processions and offerings, ceremonies and incense take the place of a normal workday. There are deeper beliefs, too. “To keep bad spirits and ghosts at bay, scaffolders used to hang bamboo peelings around their waist,” says So. They also used to hang bamboo loops on the scaffold at night to keep it safe from harm; some still do.
“There aren’t many of the old traditions still going today, though,” says So. Curiously, then, there are still hundreds of tiny tin-plate altars with smoking joss sticks and food offerings at the base of construction sites across the island.
Meanwhile, back on the 80th story, the construction work goes on. It can get so hot, the workers can get dehydrated in minutes, or lashed by tropical rainstorms and drained by 99 percent humidity. But the job isn’t about nice working conditions and a top-tier salary. It’s about the skill, the agility and the feel for a craft that has survived for thousands of years. It’s about building something nobody else in the world can.
And what about not looking down from those gut-wrenching heights, so you don’t get scared? “That’s rubbish,” says Yu. “If you get scared looking down then you’re in the wrong job.”
Check out the February 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands January 10) for more. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.
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