With most research about Hong Kong bamboo scaffolding dating from the late 1990s, Andy and I decide to pay a visit to the bamboo wholesalers to see what we can find out.
Toby, our long-suffering contractor, tells us we should just put our order in with the scaffolders. How, exactly, are we planning to get the poles, by ourselves, to Tai Tam? We persist. He eventually sends us a photo of the car mechanics opposite. The address on Google Maps points to a spot on a long road through New Territories with nothing on it, next to Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest mountain.
With comfort knowing that nothing is more than 30 minutes from Central, we set off towards deepest Shek Kong. It is sunny, almost T-shirt weather, not like December at all.
Six lane motorways and high rise buildings give way to a busy country road lined with half built luxury looking “village” houses alongside junk yards, tangled telegraph poles, and road works bollards. No road numbers.
Then around the corner, a corrugated iron yard with stacks and stacks of bamboo poles standing in neat upright bundles. There is a wide green gate with big red calligraphy letters fronted by an artful clump of yellow and green striped bamboo. Must be it.
The yard is around the size of a basketball court. There is an old speedboat in one corner, next to a papaya tree. There is home cured bacon hanging out in the sun. And bamboo poles everywhere. Taller than a house, and varying colours of green and brown.
We find an elderly man and woman in the small office having lunch. They’re both wearing down jackets, the way that Hong Kong people insist on at the merest hint of under 20 degrees C. She comes out, walking with a cane.
I try to explain. Well… we built a bamboo jungle gym. You know, get the kids to experience bamboo. It’s so amazing. It’s all about biodiversity education. Our scaffolders get all their bamboo from you. We have all these questions. She looks skeptical. “Are you here to buy bamboo or what?”
I struggle with the phone and finally find an image of the jungle gym. Wouldn’t it be great to put these up in different schools, at the flower show, on a beach? Then everyone can have a chance to play and get to know bamboo. You see, we do environmental education…
She considers. “You’re in Tai Tam? You tell those Scouts they need to get over here soon. Big order from them, got the poles all straightened out, my customers for a long time…” It turns out the Scouts do a big camp every few years and order a job lot. Mrs Mak (“like McDonald’s”) likes the Scouts. She’s seen kids who joined the camp, now grown up, and coming back for more bamboo for their kids.
Mrs Mak’s bamboo comes from Guangxi in China. They are cut, transported by boat, then stored outdoors to dry, although for how long “it depends on the sun, the rain”. There is no other treatment required for bamboo scaffolding. When the bamboo is brown it is ready.
I recognise the Mao Juk 毛竹 (Phyllostachys pubescens) and Ko Juk 篙竹 (Bambusa pervariabilis). Mao Juk being thicker, with ridged nodes, Ko Juk slender, both around eight metres tall. Only two species of bamboo are used for scaffolding in Hong Kong, although around 60 species of bamboo grow here. There is also fir, for structural support, and thinner bamboo which could be used for fencing, and bamboo baskets, brooms, and ladders.
A buyer comes in and heads straight for the Scout stack. Mrs Mak fends them off, no no, not those! We hear a quote for $13 per pole of the Ko Juk. The poles are tied in bundles of five. He starts loading onto a truck. One truck takes around 60 bundles, or 300 poles.
We ask how much is a Mao Juk. “Well, I would charge your types a different amount… the scaffolders are coming in all the time to buy, you know. $25? Hardly! You are looking at $50-60 each.”
What about the quality, do you have different grades? “That was before, we used to have 甲乙兵 (Chinese for A, B and C). But now, who would want the Grade Bs and Cs, if someone buys all the As?” Turns out the bamboo comes bundled in fives from China already.
And how about the age, doesn’t it have to age for a few years before it’s ready? Mrs Mak says there’s no difference now, it’s cut as soon as it grows high enough, no waiting for 3-4 years anymore. It’s not as solid nowadays.
“Foreigners are so happy when they see the bamboo. A buyer came in from US and bought hundreds. Thought they were beautiful. Why? They haven’t got any over there, have they? That buyer… his order went moldy in transit… Well, who knew they would get stuck so long in transit.”
For all the eco-friendliness of bamboo scaffolding it turns out that none of it is recycled. Some can be reused. But mostly the scaffolders pay for it to be taken away. And then it gets sent to the landfills.
Another truck comes in. They eye the nicely straightened Scout poles. “No, not selling those!”.
We decide we need some Mao Juk. It’s about biodiversity, isn’t it. We carefully choose an offcut chunk of Mao Juk that can just about fit into a car and try to pay for it. “No no, just take it, present…”
In the name of biodiversity education, we ask, can we have some of that yellow striped stuff in front? “That’s the Governments! They planted it to stop people building out… can’t stand it!” So if someone sawed off a pole that’s fine is it? “Nothing to do with us…”
Fuk Cheong Bamboo Suppliers
403 Kam Tin Public Road, Shek Kong, Yuen Long, Hong Kong