Hong Kong's 'spiders' stick to bamboo scaffolding

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The Independent Online

Nicknamed "spiders" for their gravity-defying skills in web-like constructions, Hong Kong's bamboo scaffolders have risen above predictions that their trade would disappear.

They remain a common sight high above the streets of the city, scaling the sides of towering, ultra-modern steel and glass buildings on traditional bamboo poles linked through ancient design concepts.

"People prophesied in 1957 that bamboo scaffolding was finished," former construction industry instructor Dan Waters told AFP, recalling the talk at an exhibition of new steel and aluminium gear.

The prophesy has proved accurate in some other Asian countries, such as mainland China and Singapore, where bamboo has largely been banished from high-rise construction sites in favour of modern materials.

But in Hong Kong, 1,835 registered bamboo scaffolders continue to play a vital role in forming the constantly changing skyline of the Chinese territory, and each year a handful of new recruits sign up.

"I didn't want to stay inside a classroom," 18-year-old trainee Wong Tik-hong told AFP while sitting two storeys up on a horizontal pole, with a leg hooked around a vertical for support.

"I was afraid when I looked up from the ground," he said of his early days of training at the Construction Industry Council (CIC) academy, where he and other students were erecting a frame against a wall.

Wong's initial fear is not surprising in a trade that requires workers to clamber dozens of storeys on flimsy looking frames made from what botanists recognise as a species of grass, tethered together by nylon strips.

A total of 16 people died by falling from scaffolding at construction sites in Hong Kong in the five years to 2008 - nine of them scaffolders - according to Labour Department statistics.

Building confidence is an important part of the training, said academy instructor Tang Sung-yuen, who started his scaffolding career at the age of 14 in the late 1960s.

The trainer, who scaled the bamboo wrappings of the Hopewell Centre in the early 1980s when the 64-storey building became the territory's highest structure, has classic advice for dealing with nerves at altitude: "Don't look down."

Despite a strong emphasis on safety on the CIC course, students acknowledge that there are concerns surrounding their choice of career.

"Even if they worry, there's not much my family can do, because I have to make a living. I have to find my way," said Wong's classmate Tsz Lung, who has his sights set on running his own firm of bamboo scaffolders.

"I plan to become a boss," the 20-year-old told AFP.

It takes several years before wages reach the going rate of around 700 to 800 Hong Kong dollars (90-100 US dollars) a day for experienced scaffolders.

Newly qualified scaffolders can expect to earn 350 to 400 Hong Kong dollars a day, staying on that rate for the first four years until they take a masters qualification.

At that wage, and with the risks involved, scaffolding is not a popular choice at the CIC academy. Only seven students are on the course this year, while about 30 have signed up for plumbing.

Scaffolding contractor Y.H. So of Wui Fai holdings is uncertain about the future.

"Last year only four students graduated from the CIC training academy. The government won't let us train our own staff," he told AFP. "All our trade is dying," he said.

Speaking outside a bamboo covered cluster of new 50-storey towers in the Diamond Hill neighbourhood near Kowloon city, he told AFP that there was also no guarantee of a continuous supply of bamboo poles in the future.

"I think change is coming. We are worried about the supply of bamboo in China," he said, explaining that most of it comes from wild bamboo groves in Guangxi province.

"The supply will drop off. There are more towns and cities now in China," he said.

But at the moment his bamboo demand is met without delay, including all the poles needed for the 30 million Hong Kong dollar contract at Diamond Hill that employs 30-40 full-time scaffolders a day.

Instructor Tang at the CIC academy does not share So's pessimism and rejects concerns about the supply of bamboo, a fast growing plant ubiquitous throughout southern China.

He also believes young men will continue to set their sights on becoming scaffolders, though "not everyone is capable of doing this job."

The industry offers new recruits good opportunities to move from merely providing skilled labour to becoming bosses of their own firms. "And that's the ultimate goal for any worker in Hong Kong," he said.

Dan Waters now knows that the 1957 prediction about the demise of bamboo scaffolding was premature, and believes it will still be around for a long time to come.

He heard the forecast during a field trip with his building industry students at the construction site of the Furama hotel, where there was an exhibition of metal scaffolding.

More than 50 years later the hotel has gone, replaced by the gleaming asymmetrical AIG tower - and bamboo continues to be a major scaffolding material.

"I didn't think it would last in 1957, but I'm more convinced than ever that it will carry on. It will certainly long last me out," said Waters.