Bamboo: the symbol of integrity and versatility

11 November 2016

Backbone of building works in Macao for decades, today its use may be numbered.

Bamboo is an integral part of China’s history and culture, symbolising virtues like humility, flexibility, loyalty and resilience that are prevalent in poetic and artistic expression. It has been depicted throughout the ages in paintings and poetry as one of the ‘four men of honour’ or ‘four gentlemen’ along with the chrysanthemum, orchid and plum blossom.

There are more than 1,400 species of bamboo native to China, some reaching heights of 25 metres to form dense forests. Depending on the species, a plant can take up to five years to sprout, but once it does emerge from the ground, it can grow at an incredible rate, in some cases up to a metre a day. It’s no wonder that bamboo holds the record for fastest growing plant in the world.

The utilisation of bamboo depends on the flexibility of its particular species, making it suitable for a wide variety of applications, from books and paintbrushes to food for livestock to interlaced construction scaffolding.

Over the course of Macao’s history, few buildings have been built without the aid of bamboo. So it has been for centuries and so it continues, yet the days of bamboo scaffolding may soon be numbered. What is now commonplace for buildings under construction may disappear within a mere decade or two.

It is not that bamboo itself is becoming obsolete. Rather, bamboo masters who give form to bamboo scaffolding have no one to pass on their know-how to, and mastery of this age-old tradition has fallen into disuse in mainland China. Can bamboo scaffolding survive the 21st century?

THE SPIDER-MEN OF CONSTRUCTION

Bamboo scaffolding workers are known as spider-men. The explanation is obvious: taap pang (in Cantonese) workers move nimbly like spiders among the interconnected bamboo poles forming the scaffolding framework for 10-, 30-, even 80-storey buildings.

The poles can be up to eight metres long and weigh five kilos each. To hold them together, nylon strips are wound several times around each joint; the ends are then twisted and held fast between the bamboo poles. No nails, screws or glue are used.

This technique has remained virtually the same for the past 1,500 years with only slight improvements and adjustments, like nylon replacing plant stalks, and has been passed down from generation to generation without written texts or records. Everything is from memory with improvisations made as specific cases and problems arise.

Not too long ago, taap pang was taken up as a profession as a last resort by those whose only recourse was to learn the art of assembling bamboo scaffolding. A taap pang worker would then have to wait many years before earning recognition as a ‘spider’. Spiders are masters: the keepers of knowledge and experience who move with the most agility and thus receive the highest pay. All taap pang workers start out as apprentices and eventually become spiders only if they possess the skills.

Leung Shao Guang was once such an apprentice. Today he is one of Macao’s grandmasters and a proud spider. Leung began working in bamboo structures in 1966, when he was only 13 years old. He didn’t like the job initially, but with no advanced schooling, there weren’t many alternatives for him. In 1976, China’s economy was just starting to open up, and life for Leung, who at the time lived in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, was still quite difficult. So he decided to join family in Macao at the age of 23.

Leung recalls the huge difference in wages between Macao and Zhuhai. “I earned 70 patacas a day. That was very good pay. You could only earn that much if you had more years of experience, and I already had 10. It was a lot of money compared to the 45 renminbi per month I earned in China.”

Leung is one of the few bamboo masters remaining in Macao. “When I arrived in Macao, there were more than 200 masters. Now there are only around 30 or 40, and they are getting old.” He attributes this drastic decline in numbers partly to the fact that Macao’s development has provided much easier options for young people, enabling them to avoid the often irregular income associated with bamboo scaffolding.

While acknowledging the hard work involved in construction compared to positions in hotels or casinos, Master Leung insists that it is not the physical risks deterring young people from pursuing the profession. He doesn’t believe the work is actually very dangerous. Rather, young people nowadays simply have more choices, and studying to be taap pang workers is not high on that list. So as masters like Leung continue to retire, their positions remain vacant with no one to fill them.

BAMBOO VERSUS METAL

Although bamboo scaffolding’s outlook appears grim, it continues to be the most popular choice for construction and building maintenance throughout Macao and Hong Kong where the traditional method is still used on nearly 90 per cent of construction builds. Metal scaffolding is not popular in these two regions, but the situation is quite different in mainland China where bamboo scaffolding is seldom seen.

According to Honorary President of the Macao Construction Association, Lo Kai Jone, beyond the shortage of masters, it is not metal structures that threaten the survival of bamboo scaffolding or even bamboo’s alleged safety shortcomings which some construction sectors have questioned. Lo explains that new construction methods and trends leave little margin for the survival of small and medium-sized enterprises like those of the bamboo spider-men.

“It’s true that metal structures are easier to set up and more systematic than bamboo structures. But they are not safer and are much more expensive, doubling or even tripling the cost. In mainland China, new buildings are now being built with new methods that don’t use scaffolding at all; rather, they use a system of slides and gondolas. Those construction methods are highly technical and use very sophisticated and heavy equipment; that’s why they’re in the hands of large companies and multinationals. Normal construction companies don’t stand a chance of competing; as a result, there are increasingly fewer of them.”

The days of bamboo scaffolding as an integral part of the construction process may be numbered, but no one can deny the advantages it has demonstrated over the course of history. Lo certainly still considers it the most suitable option considering Macao’s space limitations and climate. “Metal structures require a lot of storage space, and many warehouses are required to safeguard such construction equipment. Macao has space limitations, and storing metal structures can be expensive. Bamboo is much easier to deal with. It also resists strong typhoon winds well, whereas metal is much heavier and thus much more dangerous should accidents occur.”

BAMBOO FOR MACAO

The architect João Palla was driven by curiosity when he set out to explore bamboo in the 1990s. Even his imagination failed to anticipate the charm and secrets of this vast and heretofore unrecorded world. He chose Macao, his current home, as the location for his study “Bamboo as Construction Material.” This report, published in 2002 by the Lisbon School of Social and Political Sciences in the first volume of the Studies about China collection coordinated by the anthropologist Ana Maria Amaro, includes a metric survey of bamboo construction, photos and interviews with masters and contractors.

“The study identifies the significance of each type of construction on a case-by-case basis through drawings and thorough graphic records. Floor plans don’t exist because contractors don’t use plans to build the structures. The documentation process was actually backwards: I drew plans based on finished constructions,” reports Palla.

“One exception being the monumental construction of the bullring in the late 1990s. Because it had to be a very precisely regulated structure, the design was blueprinted beforehand. Interestingly, the lines were actually drawn on the ground, a traditional technique used as with old cathedrals.”

Through his research, Palla came to understand that the technique used in bamboo construction is purely empirical and that secrets ensuring its continuity are passed on from generation to generation, from family to family.

This study, still the only one of its kind in Macao, provides a thorough survey of the types of bamboo construction used at the time. Twenty years later, many of those constructions have notably disappeared or have been replaced by metal structures, such as the Macao Grand Prix grandstands and spectator seating for the dragon boat races which are now fixed in place.

The decision to move away from bamboo “is not due to a shortage of bamboo or labour but rather the imposition of new technology. This is all because in some people’s minds bamboo structures are not safe,” the architect explains.

Although much has already been lost, the most significant cultural buildings built with bamboo structures remain: the three main Chinese opera pavilions situated in Barra, Taipa and Coloane that also function as acting temples and celebrate Chinese divinities.

Leung also feels a special affection for the Chinese opera pavilions as he was master spider for the Tam Kung temple pavillion in Coloane in 2013. Under his direction, a team of six or seven worked for nearly a month to complete the project.

Recently, Palla launched the Bamboo for Macao project. Partly a result of his previous study, the initiative aims to seek out new prospects for bamboo’s future. One of Palla’s goals is to reverse the current trend of its dwindling usage. To that end, he proposes a few measures that will not only revamp bamboo’s image but enhance that of Macao’s. “Creating a focus group to research the current traditions of Macao and Hong Kong; establishing a comprehensive and systematic understanding of bamboo construction as dictated by master builders; and promoting a positive brand image that links this significant tradition with modern design and sustainability.”

“For many years, people associated bamboo with poverty when it’s just the contrary. The Chinese used to say long ago that bamboo was a dear friend because it supplied everything: food, shelter, raw material for tools and medication,” concludes Palla who believes in the power of bamboo and continues to fight for its cause.

BAMBOO CRASHING THE URBAN ART SCENE

Bamboo’s use in urban art is one option currently being explored. In collaboration with art and architecture students from the Science and Technology University and the University of Saint Joseph, Palla tests and considers bamboo’s many facets as exhibited in diverse forms across the city, demonstrating conceptual approaches together with traditional bamboo joining techniques.

Also looking to reinterpret bamboo and redefine its value are two young Macao architects João Ó and Rita Machado. Their Treeplets project has been distinguished with the 2015 Silver A Design Award in the category of architecture, building and structure design. Treeplets, a sculptural piece made of bamboo representing three intertwined trees is a joint project initiative promoted by the Babel cultural organisation.

In 2013, Ó and Machado formed their company Impromptu Projects. From its conception, they were on the lookout for a means to incorporate the plasticity they wanted their projects to exude. Conventional building materials and techniques proved problematic. Ultimately, they found the answer in bamboo. “We wanted to use a material and concept that was already present in the territory and give it new meaning. We didn’t want to invent anything; we wanted to use what was already here and to reinterpret,” Machado explains.

But the creative process also requires gathering information and knowledge, and Macao had little to offer in the way of research. “We spent a year investigating bamboo construction. We realised there wasn’t much information, unless from individuals like João Palla and some others, but they are very isolated cases. We went to Hong Kong, did some workshops in Colombia and even went to Korea to conferences focusing on bamboo,” says Ó. “What we realised when we went to a global conference was that everyone had the same problem we have in Macao, that is, a lack of information, documents and analysis. That feeling was common among all architects, urban planners, landscapers and engineers,” Machado adds.

As Ó and Machado discovered, Macao’s bamboo construction tradition has one major advantage over that of other countries’ which is in the scaffolding itself. Therefore, when they contacted local bamboo masters to build Treeplets, the architects aligned their architectural strategies with the masters’ experience, conceding to their wealth of empirical knowledge, as previously noted by Palla.

“We have our drawings, but the masters don’t understand drawings, plans, sections, elevations: it’s all so technical. We realised we’d have to build a model, a scale model of Treeplets. Rita made the model and explained it to the bamboo masters, with the added problem of not speaking Chinese. The common communication point with them was the model. They counted squares. Four squares to the top and one more for the side, another one up and that’s how things got done,” Ó explains. “It’s all empirical. When they saw the model they reacted right away: let’s get going, but look at the model,” Rita adds.

Although pessimism prevails regarding the survival of bamboo scaffolding, Ó remains optimistic that it will not disappear completely. His calculations factor in the cost effectiveness of bamboo along with the speed and skill with which it can be constructed, pointing to repairs on the Macao Science Centre as an example. “The Science Centre, that round form, was entirely wrapped in bamboo. The speed with which they built it, the way they can adjust to any form — if the scaffolding was metal they couldn’t have done it, they’d have to do a stepped form. Bamboo has that quality of being very versatile.”

Machado believes art will help ensure the survival of the spider-men. Citing under-utilised creative qualities, she sees great potential for the future of bamboo construction and its master craftsmen. Machado asserts that acknowledgement and recognition of their skills and artistry by the public and cultural institutions could make all the difference. “It would be good to have these masters working on art. I remember when we were building Treeplets, they were fascinated by the process because it was outside their routine.”

Toward the end, one of the masters stayed behind with me because he wanted to see how it looked at night. They were very curious and wanted to understand everything.” She adds, “I think that bringing bamboo to these art forms could be uplifting for the masters. The installations and recent documentaries about the masters have lent prestige and recognition to a job we see every day without really noticing it.”

Master Leung’s appreciation and admiration for bamboo certainly go beyond construction. Due to its lightweight, flexible and beautiful qualities, “It can take anything; if the wind is strong, bamboo bends and resists.” He also points to the long history of bamboo in Chinese culture and society, where it is considered one of the “four men of honour”. The root of the bamboo plant represents firmness, the culm (stalk) honour, the hollow interior modesty, the smooth exterior with its nodes loyalty and union.

Like other masters, Leung works without plans or drawings. “The plan is in the heart; it doesn’t need drawings. If I have to, I’ll make a plan, but it’s not necessary. Even if I do draw a plan, no one but me would understand it.” Ó and Machado heard the same from one of the masters they worked with. In his poignant words, “The eyes are the measuring tape and the plan is in the heart.”

In Macao, there is renewed awareness of bamboo’s importance despite opinions underrating its immense value. The city’s architects agree that the time has come for transformation, to give bamboo a place of honour. Palla has no doubts as to the valuable qualities of bamboo whose future lies in the hands of those who know how to use it. “It has a huge future as a sustainable material, but it will depend on how it is used and treated.”

Bamboo indisputably has many virtues, both practical and poetic. It is ecological, sustainable and above all, perseverant. But does the future need bamboo more than bamboo needs the future? The answer to whether bamboo scaffolding can survive the 21st century remains to be seen. (Macao Magazine, by Ana Isabel Dias, photo by António Sanmarful)

MACAUHUB FRENCH