Concrete jungle: high-rise Hong Kong inferno shines dangerous light on history and practice of city’s bamboozling scaffolding tradition

Concrete jungle: high-rise Hong Kong inferno shines dangerous light on history and practice of city’s bamboozling scaffolding tradition
  • Centuries of Chinese building tradition lie behind a recent spectacular fire on an under-construction Hong Kong skyscraper
  • The nighttime blaze in which no one was killed or seriously injured made headlines around the world

Images of a massive fire at a construction site in one of Hong Kong’s busiest shopping districts populated news feeds around the world.

For nine hours about 250 firefighters battled the blaze in the Kowloon district of Tsim Sha Tsui. The 48-storey structure, owned by property developer the Empire Group, was the early phase of the 500-room Kimpton Hotel.

Burning debris and glowing embers rained from the sky, the dramatic nighttime scenes enhanced by giant flames silhouetting the bamboo scaffolding that wrapped around some of the structure.

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Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, with 9,000 skyscrapers crammed together, helping to create one of the most iconic and recognisable skylines on the planet.

Among the sea of concrete and steel is an organic material that has long been the foundation of the city’s construction industry.

Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world that still uses bamboo scaffolding, the material preferred because of its flexibility and strength. It is also much lighter than steel.

In a fast-paced and constantly evolving city like Hong Kong where money talks, the efficiency of bamboo compared with steel also makes it appealing: it is six times faster to erect and 12 times faster to dismantle.

Bamboo scaffolding is also more cost-effective than steel and aluminium, and can be erected without complex tools or machinery.

What is needed however is a skilled – and brave – army of workers who can fix nylon ties while working at giddying heights. There are 2,479 registered bamboo scaffolders in Hong Kong.

As one of the fastest growing plants – some can grow 60cm a day, and eventually 40 metres tall – bamboo also ticks the sustainability box.

It also plays a valuable role in an essential Hong Kong tradition when, each spring, it is used to construct opera theatres.

Two main types of bamboo are used to construct the outdoor theatres. The most common is gaozhu, and the other, a wider and longer bamboo is called maozhu.

But a look back through Chinese history makes it clear that bamboo has been widely used in construction for centuries and is featured in one of China’s most treasured works of art, Along the River During the Qingming Festival, by imperial artist Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145).

Modern artists have also fallen under its spell. American photographer Peter Steinhauer saw its allure when he first visited Hong Kong in 1994.

He was so captivated by the bamboo-clad skyscrapers enveloped in canvas that in 2018 he released “Cocoons”, a book featuring 100 buildings, the title an apt choice for the body of work celebrating the giant, wrapped, cocoon-like structures.

“Coloured material unveiled ceremoniously reveals a brand new facade, as in a cocoon revealing itself for the first time,” he writes in the book, adding: “Just like a butterfly uncovering itself for the first time.”

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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