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Tradition of Hong Kong’s Bamboo Theaters

By Bamboo Grove on June 28, 2018

For a few weeks out of every year, the residents of Ap Lei Chau build a towering bamboo theater. Ap Lei Chau is part of Hong Kong, and is one of the world’s most crowded islands. A thousand people can cram into this gigantic bamboo theater built in southern Hong Kong. The reason for the theater being built every year? It’s to perform Chinese opera, specifically an opera meant to celebrate the birthday of Hung Shing. Hung Shing is the god of the Southern sea and he is still revered in this once great fishing isle.

There are about 40 bamboo theaters erected in Hong Kong every year for performances celebrating the Chinese gods. Given that these theaters are built several times a year, you’d think it would be easy to look up some blueprints to mock one up. However these theaters aren’t some cookie cutter construction project. Workers build the theaters purely on instinct and experience. In today’s Hong Kong, it’s said that less than 100 people specialize in making bamboo theaters. Chan Yuk-kwong is the owner of Wah Bo Engineering, and he’s built the Ap Lei Chau project for 3 decades now. There is a severe lack of younger people interested in the building of the structures anymore, and Chan fears that there will be a day without them.

Bamboo theaters in Hong Kong can be traced back to the 1800s. They were originally erected for pop-up street shows. Today, there are bamboo structures all over Hong Kong. It’s estimated that five million rods of bamboo are used in construction every year. These theaters might raise some eyebrows at OSHA because they are all constructed by hand, and by men that scale the bamboo grids without the use of safety harnesses. These men are what you call artisan construction workers. Much of the building process is completely unplanned, giving it an almost artistic feeling. Like how a painter will sometimes just start with colors on a blank canvas.

Chan claims to have built bamboo theaters in locations as dangerous as cliff edges. The reason being, they have to be close to the temple for the god being honored. These theaters are even more impressive when you consider that not one nail is used in the construction. No modern western construction practices are in use for these uniquely Chinese structures. The crew for the Ap Lei Chau theater completely built out one side of the structure before even shaping it into a box. They are truly a construction marvel.

So other than tradition, why do they keep building them with bamboo. Well, the answer is pretty simple. The strength of the material is that is incredibly eco-friendly. These theaters are meant to be torn down and built again every year. Western construction would require that trees be harvested every year. This is costly in money and resources for a place like Hong Kong. Also, they just look really cool.

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