- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2001

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. Sometimes, workers in a hurry cut holes in the scaffolding or remove steel brackets that hold it to the wall. One slip, one wrong step or one piece of old bamboo can end a man's life.
"Don't worry, lady, I'm not going to come in. We're just doing some scaffolding work here," says Zheung Wa Long, a wiry veteran of the trade who is balancing precariously on a thin ledge 16 floors above the ground.

Some dangers man-made
He folds himself double to reassure the woman in the apartment below, then pushes his drill into the concrete wall. It puts up a fight — a good sign. Unscrupulous contractors in Hong Kong mix their concrete with salt water to save money, which makes the walls in these buildings brittle, and dangerous for the bamboo scaffolders.
The Hilton cigarette stuck in a gap between Mr. Zheung's upper teeth bobs up and down as he works. He secures the two triangular iron frames six feet apart with single-fasten bolts. Inside the apartment, his assistant, Kin Lau, hands him an 8-foot-long stick of gray, aging bamboo through the window. Mr. Zheung straps it to the frames with nylon ties. With two bamboo sticks in place, he sits down on them and unfastens his safety belt.
Thirty-four years ago, Mr. Zheung slipped into the shark-infested waters outside Shenzhen and made his bid for freedom. Armed border guards with orders to shoot on sight were posted every 50 yards. He and his four companions swam for 16 hours. They had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and nothing to hold onto. One of them drowned.
"I had only one thought in my head," said Mr. Zheung. "I've got to get to Hong Kong. I've got to get to Hong Kong. If I don't get to Hong Kong, I'm dead."

Sons follow father
His father and younger brother had crossed the border five years earlier, during the mass exodus of 1962 when China opened its side for three months. Mr. Zheung's first job in Hong Kong was in a weaving factory. "In those days, we didn't even have shoes," he said.
In China, Mr. Zheung's grandfather used to build bamboo opera houses for traveling Cantonese troupes. His father learned the trade from him, and went into business in Hong Kong. In 1979, Ji Ming, the youngest of Mr. Zheung's two brothers, swam to Hong Kong in only five hours.
The three Zheung brothers make their headquarters in a muggy, stale den down in the parking lot of Mei Foo Village, one of Kowloon's high-rise suburbs. The ceiling is plastered with Cantonese movie posters and small yellow stickers — scaffolding projects, big and small, all over Hong Kong.
For years, they did all kinds of projects — bamboo opera houses, high-rise apartments, neon signs, you name it. "Whenever we built an opera house on one of the outlying islands," Wa Hing Zheung recalled, "we just threw bamboo in the water and towed it behind the boat."

More danger, better pay
In the 1970s, the highest scaffolding they did was about 10 stories for the Christmas decorations on the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank headquarters in the Central business district.
Now they do scaffolding only for repair and refurbishing work. They get to move around, and stay away from the gambling and other trouble common to construction sites. It's the most dangerous job in the trade, and the best paid among bamboo scaffolders.
Wa Hing Zheung keeps in the drawer of his desk in Mei Foo browned newspaper clippings of old friends who have lost their lives on the job. "I didn't go to their funerals; it hurt too much," he said.
At 1:30 p.m. on the afternoon of Aug. 5, 1995, on the ninth floor of a building in Shamshuipo, Kwok Chi Keung, 48, and his younger brother, Kwok Hui Keung, were removing bamboo scaffolding that had been used by workers changing window frames. Kwok Chi Keung had secured his safety belt to a water pipe, but the pipe gave way, and he fell six floors to the roof of a shopping mall.
They rushed him to the hospital, but his skull was cracked and his life could not be saved.

Clippings are epitaphs
Last year, another friend and old colleague of Wa Hing Zheung, Chou Laifu, fell to his death from the eighth floor of a building in Ho Man Tin. According to the newspaper clipping, Chou Laifu was wearing a secured safety belt, but Wa Hing Zheung says co-workers sometimes put a safety belt on an injured or dead colleague so the victim's family can collect insurance.
Besides accidents, typhoons are among a bamboo scaffolder's biggest fears. Veterans of the trade remember Typhoon Wen Doi, which struck Hong Kong in 1964 with winds of up to 132 mph, blowing cargo ships ashore and ripping down scaffolding all over the territory.
Every major typhoon that hits Hong Kong leaves a trail of destruction, and bamboo scaffolding is a vulnerable targets. In October 1992, a 220-foot-high bamboo scaffold the Zheung brothers had put up in Mei Foo was blown down by sudden strong winds. Traffic in the area had to be diverted for three hours.

Demand outstrips supply
In recent years, the scaffolders also have had to worry about finding bamboo.
Every year, Hong Kong's bamboo scaffolders buy about 10 million sticks of bamboo from Guangxi and Guangdong provinces in south China. Scaffolders use two kinds of bamboo — the thicker, stronger Mao bamboo for bracing and vertical standards at the base of a structure, and the lighter Kao bamboo for transoms and ledgers.
July to October, when farmers in Guangxi and Guangdong are busy tending to their rice paddies, is the hardest time to find bamboo. To make things worse, the quality of the bamboo is deteriorating. The strongest bamboo is 3 to 4 years old, but because demand in Hong Kong is so high, farmers harvest it after two years. Then it's long enough but not sturdy enough.
On the 33rd floor of the Man Yee Mansion in Central, Hong Kong's financial district, He Zheuk Leung and Feizai sip Cokes during their "afternoon tea" break and take in the sights: carpenters, steel-benders, masons, concrete pourers, electricians and plumbers doing their jobs with the dogged intensity that has made Hong Kong one of the great cities of the world.

$130 per day
For the past few months, the building been rising one floor every six days — faster than anywhere else. Together, Mr. Leung and Feizai have used more than 200,000 bamboo sticks to keep the workers and people on the street below protected. They're making good money, about $130, in the Hong Kong construction industry. Only the steel-benders make more.
Up on the grid, Feizai and Mr. Leung both wear safety belts, but they seldom secure them anywhere. That's why life insurance for bamboo scaffolders is three times more expensive than for other people in Hong Kong.
The highest scaffolding Feizai has ever done was some 50 stories for the elevator shaft of the Citicorp Centre in Central. The highest bamboo scaffolding structure ever built was 71 stories — inside the elevator shaft of Central Plaza in Wanchai.
Scaffolding with bamboo inside elevator shafts, however, highlights another of its great hazards — flammability.

Future becomes uncertain
In November 1996, bamboo scaffolding was being used for repair work inside the elevator shafts of the Garley Building on Nathan Road in Kowloon. Sparks from welding torches or perhaps cigarette butts ignited trash at the bottom of the shaft, and the bamboo caught fire. The fire spread rapidly along the scaffolding to the upper floors, blocking all escape routes for the office workers. When the flames subsided, 40 persons were dead.
By the time Mr. Leung and Feizai are finished working at the Man Yee, their scaffolding will rise some 440 feet above ground level. Then it will be time for them to move on.
Since he arrived in Hong Kong in the rail car of pigs 20 years ago, Mr. Leung has not been unemployed a single day. With Hong Kong mired in a recession, however, he and Feizai may soon face that prospect. "We don't eat from the iron bowl," Feizai noted.
None of the scaffold men worries too much, though. They have lived every day of Hong Kong's rags-to-riches story, and have been through worse.
Braced on a rickety bamboo grid 400 feet above Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor, swaying in the wind, they can say they have seen it all before.

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