Glass, Steel, and Bamboo

June 20, 2010 — Hong Kong is a place that seems like it is constantly being made and remade. It is virtually impossible to go from point A to point B in this city without passing a construction site or cordoned-off road under repair. Across the street from my office at the university is an open lot in which the foundation is being laid for a high-rise tower of offices and classrooms. One block further south, the new art academy and communications building is nearing completion. During the day, I work at my desk with the muffled sound of jackhammers, pile drivers, and cement mixers in the background. At the lunch canteen there is always the usual mix of students, staff, and construction workers lined up to get a steaming bowl of noodles or a rice & duck take-away pack. Around campus, it seems like hard hats, reflective vests, and steel-toe boots are as much a part of university fashion as are neckties and mini-skirts. My own project in general education and curriculum development is part of the larger effort to help my host university be ready for the shift to the four-year curriculum in fall 2012—which much of this construction is meant to accommodate. As such, the daily racket outside my window—while it can be an irritating distraction at times—is a constant reminder of the urgency and importance of having everything ready in time for this transition to occur smoothly.

The construction going on at my university is merely a reflection of this larger phenomenon throughout the city. Looking out across the skyline one sees dozens of high-rise cranes along with skyscrapers and mountains. Amid the glass and steel towers that defiantly shoot skyward are hundreds of construction sites as well as overhaul projects for structures already built. One of the most curious things I have noticed about Hong Kong is that the most sleek and ultra-modern buildings—some of them thirty or forty stories—are often encased in the most primitive-looking yet intricate bamboo latticework scaffolds (see below). It is really bizarre and anachronistic: the most aesthetically and technologically modern structures covered in the same type of scaffolding that, from appearance at least, would be more appropriate for building the great pyramids or as a set from "Gilligan’s Island." The explanation, it turns out, is quite simple. Bamboo poles are the ideal scaffolding material. There is no other synthetic or natural material that combines the same advantages of strength, flexibility, light weight and low cost. The key to being able to put together a safe and secure bamboo scaffold is the reliability of the ties and fasteners and the effectiveness of weight distribution. Hong Kong construction teams are experts at designing these scaffolds and then putting them up and taking them down. The poles themselves can be reused many times, and hundreds of them can be loaded onto a single flatbed truck. If the construction team knows what it is doing, the use of bamboo scaffolds helps keep project costs down while also decreasing accident rates as well. I’ll say it once again: this city never ceases to amaze me.

The impulse toward relentlessly clearing out the old to make way for the new and improved goes a long way to explain Hong Kong’s dynamism and success. Yet the historian in me laments how blithely the unique architectural heritage of this place is consigned to memory (if it is even remembered at all). In museum exhibits, I have seen black and white photos of Hong Kong in the 1910s and 20s. These show handsome colonial buildings, with their whitewashed Victorian colonnades and arches, lining Des Voeux and Hennessey Road while pedestrians, rickshaws, and streetcars zip by below (see below). Nowadays, one would be hard-pressed to find these buildings in the same neighborhoods (though some do still exist). This is not the same state of affairs in many European cities, which by contrast have lovingly preserved their distinctive architectural heritage. To look at an impressionist painting of the Champs Élysées is to see much the same as what appears today. The same is true of central Madrid, Rome, or London. Even in cities that were almost completely destroyed during the war, such as Warsaw or Dresden, the style and atmosphere of the old architecture has been painstakingly recreated. Skyscrapers and other modern glass and steel buildings are often restricted to the outlying areas of Europe’s great cities such as Canary Wharf in London and La Défense in Paris. This sensibility seems to be that innovation and improvement can take root and prosper, but not if it overshadows past glory, civilization, and accomplishment.

In Hong Kong, it is a different story. The real estate on the North shore of HK Island is so valuable that it is almost impossible to justify the preservation of a four- or five-story building where a fifty- or sixty-story office tower or high-rise apartment block could stand in its place. Exceptions are made only in the case of the most significant historical or cultural importance—there are less than a hundred declared monuments in all of Hong Kong. Notable colonial-era buildings that have escaped the wrecking ball include the Legislative Council, the old Central Magistracy, St. John’s Anglican Cathedral, the HK Observatory, the old Central Police Station, the main building at Hong Kong University, Government House, and the KCR Clock Tower in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the New Territories, the walled villages of Fanling and some of the older temples were isolated enough to avoid the covetous eye of real estate developers and now efforts are being made to preserve them as well.

Of course, there are exceptions to this pattern. Hong Kong, somewhat contrary to its obsession with improvement, years ago wisely decided to keep its unique double-decker streetcars. These quaint, boxy modes of transportation rattle along Des Voeux and Queen’s Road on the northern side of HK Island from Causeway Bay through Wan Chai, Admiralty, and Central all the way to Sheung Wan. If I am not in a rush, I often ride on the upper deck and take in the sights as the streetcar lumbers along in the midst of all the cars, buses and pedestrians (if I am pressed for time, as is often the case, I take the MTR Island Line that runs beneath these same streets). The city has also kept and maintained its steam-powered Star Ferry Line that runs several times an hour back and forth across Victoria Harbor. Many of these boats were built in the 1950s and entered service at a time when there were no bridges or tunnels connecting the various islands and peninsulas of Hong Kong. Nowadays there is not the same need for intra-HK ferry service, and these antique vessels could have long ago been consigned to the scrap yard. I’m happy that this never happened. It is a wonderful sight to take in the panoramic view of Victoria Harbor and see the distinctive green and white paint schemes and smokestacks of the Star ferries as they dutifully shuttle back and forth amid all the other maritime traffic. It is equally a pleasure to hear the bells and clanking of the streetcars or to turn a corner and see and see that rare colonial or Chinese building that is now a heritage site. These things make Hong Kong distinctive and the mere sight of them evokes the atmosphere of an era gone but not completely forgotten.

Scaffold on the HK Performing Arts Centre, Tsim Sha Tsui, 19 May 2010

Des Voeux Road, Hong Kong Island, c.1920