Hong Kong's incredible bamboo spidermen
Balanced on swaying poles, a trio of scaffolders in Hong Kong cling to a Tinkertoy-like construction of bamboo sticks.
They joke and curse, apparently ignoring that fact that they are perched some thirty stories above the pavement.
The men are working on a sheath of bamboo covering the Western Harbour Centre skyscraper from the ground, all the way up to the base of a radio tower on its roof. It is constructed of long, slender bamboo poles lashed together with nylon strips.
The work crew is clearly accustomed to the vertigo-inducing view. "Its almost 11:30. Let's have lunch in a few minutes, cool?" one of the crew shouts.
On one side, he overlooks the shimmering waters of Victoria Harbour, on the other, mountains coated with tropical greenery. Sandwiched in between are urban canyons of glass and steel towers.
Other buildings in the skyline also bristle with bamboo exo-skeletons, evidence of more construction projects. This is how the city's tallest towers are built and repaired.
An ancient building technique
"Bamboo scaffolding is an art," says Chan Siu Fan, owner of Chan's Scaffolding Works Ltd. In fact, it's a technique with roots that go back thousands of years in China.
Many Asian countries still use the ancient method to scale the soaring heights of modern architecture.
Bamboo is technically the largest member of the grass family. Those who work with the plant's hollow tubes insist it is lighter, cheaper and more flexible than the metal scaffolding typically used in construction elsewhere.
"There is a saying in Chinese, 'we would rather have no meat at home but we must have bamboo,'" says Wan Chi-leung, an instructor and "master" at a bamboo scaffolding school run by Hong Kong's Construction Industry Council.
Riding the bamboo
Wan watches as several of his students construct a four-story network of scaffolding. Some of them work in an almost upside down position while fastening new poles of bamboo.
Since their hands need to be free to tie knots and trim tubes with saws, the crew rely heavily on their legs and feet to cling to the structures.
"I'm making them practice their footwork," says Master Wan. "At the beginning it hurts a bit, but slowly they'll forget."
Wan refers to this technique, which involves keeping an ankle locked around a pole as "riding the bamboo."
One of the students laboring on site is Isaac Lai. He quit his job as an elevator repairmen, attracted by the starting salary of some 700 Hong Kong dollars a day [around 90 US dollars].
"I'm not worried about there being no jobs for bamboo scaffolders," he says.
The types of acrobatics students like Lai are learning, combined with modern safety devices like helmets and harnesses, are eventually used at dizzying heights.
Master Wan says his record altitude on a scaffold is 80 stories. "I saw a lot of clouds from up there," he says.