Scaffolders on Bamboo Defy Death

By Hoh, Erling | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Scaffolders on Bamboo Defy Death


Hoh, Erling, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Erling Hoh

HONG KONG - From below, it seems like climbing a 400-foot vertical rock wall. The only difference is that this wall is wobbling, swaying, lurching. A gust of wind grabs the bamboo's green netting. The grey, old bamboo stalks creaks ominously

No matter that bamboo is one of the strongest, most versatile natural materials around. Why aren't these guys using steel like everybody else?

Some 360 feet above the ground, bamboo scaffolder Feizai has his leg wrapped around a stalk and is tying more netting to the bamboo. From the top floor of the building below, his partner, He Zhuek Leung, throws him another bundle of netting. The smooth, agile way Feizai moves around on the bamboo grid, sliding sideways, climbing up and down, calls to mind a spider mending and tending its web.

Feizai lives up here most of the day, six days a week. "I was afraid in the beginning," he said matter-of-factly. "But you get used to it, just like any other job."

REFUGEES ACCEPT RISKS

Everywhere you look in this former British colony, bamboo scaffolding is being used to build 50-story apartment buildings, repair walls and refurbish neon signs. Hong Kong was built by refugees - gamblers willing to risk their lives for the kind of freedom it offered.

Mr. He arrived in Hong Kong squeezed among filthy, grunting hogs on a freight train from Shenzhen. That was his only way out from China's one-party dictatorship.

In the cutthroat world of Hong Kong business, the only way up is to be cheaper and faster than your competitor. Bamboo scaffolding is faster and a fraction of the cost of steel. That's why spidermen like Mr. He and Feizai risk their lives every day, year in and year out.

Throughout China's long history, bamboo has been one of nature's most appreciated gifts. Books have been written about how to capture its grace and beauty on paper with black ink and brush.

BAMBOO HAS MANY USES

Young bamboo shoots, a staple of Chinese cooking, are relished. "It's quite possible not to eat meat, but not to be without bamboo," the poet Su Dongpo wrote in the Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279). You can weave it into baskets, make paper of it, and use it to build skyscrapers.

Thomas Edison used a bamboo filament in his first lightbulb. Jules Janssen, a Dutch civil engineer who has devoted more than 20 years to the study of bamboo, has determined that a short section of bamboo with a diameter of 4 inches can support an 11,000-pound elephant.

The authorities in China no longer permit bamboo scaffolding for buildings higher than six stories, and bamboo scaffolding is now rarely used in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore. In Hong Kong, however, bamboo scaffolders are going higher than ever before. With some 90 percent of the scaffolding done here with bamboo, nobody thinks this is about to change soon.

Bamboo is cheaper, lighter, more flexible and takes less time to erect and dismantle than steel. The question is whether it is as safe. Scaffolders in Hong Kong are adamant that, properly erected and maintained, bamboo scaffolding can be as strong and as safe as steel or aluminum.

DEATH IS INCHES AWAY

Besides, bamboo scaffolders say, some modern structures with nooks and crannies can be scaffolded only with bamboo.

Statistics for construction workers and bamboo scaffolders in Hong Kong tell a starker story: Hong Kong's construction workers have one of the highest fatality rates in the world. Many of the accidents are related to the bamboo scaffolding. Often, it's not the scaffolders themselves but other workers who get hurt while using the scaffolding.

To save time and money, builders often ask for only single-layer scaffolding, which means that work platforms can't be built. Then, the workers have to carry all their tools in belts while climbing and clinging on the scaffolding like monkeys. …

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