Bewitched by bamboo
By Zhao Xu (HK Edition)
Updated: 2008-02-13 07:19


A bamboo theatre under construction for Ghost Festival William Lim's bamboo installation for Hong Kong/Shenzhen Architectural Biennial. Edmond Tang

When Zhu Jingxiang, a practicing architect based in East China's Nanjing city in Jianshu Province, first came to Hong Kong three years ago, he had no idea of bamboo theatre and was bamboozled by the sight of bamboo scaffolding.

"We use steel for scaffolding in Nanjing and I had a feeling that the bamboo scaffolding would be rickety and precarious," said Zhu, associate professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

Zhu was not the only person harboring this view on the bamboo scaffolding. Strolling along the streets, one can come across foreigners wearing T-shirts with the words "I survived Hong Kong's Bamboo Scaffolding" printed on the front.

However, Zhu's views on "bamboo scaffolding" have completely changed. "Bamboo has a great resilience and elasticity, which makes it an ideal construction material in windy areas. Imagine when typhoon lashes, even a steel pole gets twisted or broken. But, bamboo has the ability to withstand the strong winds as it can bend towards the direction it blows, and in the process reduce and relocate the weight it has to sustain."

Zhu has closely observed the dexterous use of bamboo in local construction industry. What struck him particularly was the bamboo theatre. It was not just the "physical structure" that fascinated him; he was overwhelmed by its "social structure".

Every year in the lunar month of July, Hong Kong people mostly immigrants from Chaozhou City in the neighboring Guangdong Province and their offspring gather to celebrate the "Ghost Festival". And during the festival, temporary bamboo theatres will be erected where local opera troupes are invited to perform.

"The choice of bamboo as the building material has a lot to do with the fact that the structure remains just for four days. A bamboo theatre generally takes seven days to build, and it takes just one day to dismantle. All that the workers need are a foldable saw, an awl, a knife and a ladder."

Zhu believes bamboo's sheer flexibility explains why the age-old bamboo theatre has survived the test of time.

Moreover, no construction drawing is needed in using bamboo as an architectural tool. In fact, the workers get only oral instructions from the master builder. And unlike working with steel where the exact amount of the material needed to be calculated, bamboo theatre builders make most of the decisions on the spot.

All this has made the business hard to be standardized, or for that matter, administered by the government.

"The bamboo theatre is a part of the local grass-roots culture. Its construction is just the opposite of the 'top-down' approach universally adopted by today's architectural world," he said.

Besides, the construction of bamboo theatre and similar structures on a number of other occasions including local festivals, community memorials and shop openings, provided ample employment opportunities for skilled builders throughout the year. Each year new bamboo theatres are built all over again.

"The demand is always there, so the valuable skills and the ancient wisdoms can be passed down from generation to generation," Zhu said.

This architectural legacy is evident in the works of William Lim, a city-based architect-cum-conceptual artist whose "working language" is bamboo. Lim's latest creation, for the ongoing Hong Kong/Shenzhen Architectural Biennial, is a bamboo garden that takes up an open area inside the former Victoria Prison in Central Hong Kong.

The bamboo poles are painted white, while the strips used to tie the knots are in black. The color contrast is aimed at highlighting the traditional hand-knotting technique. The garden, from where "you can look either upward to the framed sky or outward through the closely-planted bamboo poles, is intended to convey the sense of confinement felt by prisoners in the old days", Lam said.

Complete with neon beams, paper lantern, a garden inside garden with ground mirror and a three-minute video exploring the flow of time, Lim's space is pregnant with meanings and emotions, and filled with symbolism.

In fact, this is just another exercise in Lim's familiar territory. One of the architect's best-known works is the bamboo installation titled "Ladder" he did for the Venice Biennial 2006.

Besides, he turned Hong Kong's Victoria Park into a bamboo "Lantern Wonderland" in September, 2003.

Lim is among the growing number of Chinese architects who have explored the bewildering possibilities of bamboo for individualistic expression. The works they created are often described as "post-modern" and "conceptual".

According to Zhu, the best architecture should be "problem-oriented" instead of exhibition-oriented. "The bamboo theatre provides a perfect example for this approach. That's why it lasts," he said. "Besides, it's what we call 'vernacular architecture', or 'anonymous architecture", meaning, people got to remember the space, not the architects."

It's true that great inventions often have humble roots. But in an era when individuality is not just tolerated but celebrated, some architects find no reason to hide their ego. Working with bamboo has convinced the architects craving for individualistic expression, to be more experimental, and in many cases idiosyncratic. Lim is one such architect.

"Right now, bamboo as an organic building material is very popular in the architectural world. Many western architects are experimenting with it. As a Chinese architect, I think we should take the lead in the efforts to reinvent this millennium-old architectural language."

Lim believes that to incorporate an artistic concept into a piece of architecture would make the result more interesting, although it would take enormous efforts to perfect that concept.

The world of high-profile architecture will continue to provide fertile ground for debate. And as long as bamboo is concerned, the debate is bound to be emotionally-charged, for the simple reason that the fast-growing plant has long been integrated not only into our architecture, but also into our culture. It has turned itself into an icon, he said.

"Chinese people like bamboo because they are so much in love with the idea of renewal," said Lim. "And renewal means permanence in the face of the transience."

(HK Edition 02/13/2008 page4)