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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Bamboo Theatre, Bamboo Masters, and other stories about Hong Kong: Conversation with Cardin CHAN

Hong Kong is famed as a ‘concrete jungle’. But the seemingly permanent towers made of concrete and steel are in fact built, torn down, and rebuilt at an incredible pace and are only ever a transitory presence. On the other hand, bamboo scaffolds that weave through the dense jungle to brace and shroud these buildings temporarily seem to be a more permanent feature in the city.

Hong Kong is one of the last few places to use bamboo in building construction. Builders elsewhere have become wary of safety concerns in using bamboo, and see aluminium and steel scaffolding systems as more reliable alternatives. The industry is viable, but threatened, and even more so for bamboo masters specializing in building bamboo opera theatres. In Hong Kong, Cantonese, Chiu Chow and Hoklo Operas are the main regional forms that may be found in these seasonal theatres.

These bamboo theatres are built using two types of bamboo (moso bamboo 茅竹, larger in diameter and used as primary structural members; and pole bamboo 篙竹, smaller in diameter and used in the rest of the scaffolding), and fir logs. They are tied together using nylon strips (尼龍篾). Bamboo masters build to the specific constraints of each site, they evaluate positions of logs and bamboo poles by visual inspection and measure intervals between members using their body as reference, all while climbing up and down the gridded structure – an acrobatic feat in itself. I have long been fascinated by the architecture of these bamboo theatres, impressed by the sheer size of the large theatres, and the flexibility and ingenuity of smaller ones wedged in Hong Kong’s cramped urban spaces.

I then came across this article, where the writer Cardin Chan shadowed bamboo theatre master (師傅) Chan Yuk-kwong and his team as they worked their magic to put together the bamboo theatre at Po Toi Island. This bamboo theatre was built for the annual Tin Hau Festival (天后,the Goddess of the Sea). Although celebrations have been cancelled due to Covid-19, the theatre remained standing for the period of the festival. Thoroughly impressed by her dedication to understand the craft and ‘the story of the people who build them [which] has often slipped through the cracks’, I got in touch with Cardin to learn more about her experiences.

above: sketches of the bamboo theatre at Po Toi Island. Cardin shared an interesting practice the bamboo masters use while setting out key datum and positions: instead of saying 'move _____ to the left / right', they use reference points, such as 'Stanley', which may actually be quite far away physically, but doing because it is a fixed location in relation to everyone on site, it ensures that everyone is on the same page. (drawn by author)

Cardin is an independent cultural conservationist in Hong Kong ‘working towards being the cultural bridge between the traditional and modern worlds’. She is part of culture magazine Zolima Citymag as a research and project manager. Delving deep into the essence of many aspects of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage and their bearers, Cardin has not only documented and brought their stories to a wider audience in Hong Kong and abroad, but is also actively forging long-term partnerships as part of her endeavour to practice cultural conservation sustainably. Cardin has also been involved in running The Hong Kong Neon Heritage, a group working to preserve this disappearing local heritage that has created the city's unique nightscape.

‘Many people say that Hong Kong is a “cultural desert”. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case’, said Cardin. I believe her experience in cultural conservation and articles prove this point. Each piece looks at a particular aspect of local culture, but if one connects the dots, they form a larger constellation of cultural heritage and practices that make Hong Kong, Hong Kong. She added that many crafts and practices now considered to characterise Hong Kong have actually originated elsewhere, but because of Hong Kong’s historic place as a port and place of intense trade activities, these ‘foreign’ crafts and practices have found their way into the everyday lives of the locals. Over time, people appropriated these practices to their specific needs and available resources, infusing a distinct sense of Hong Kong-ness in the process.

When approaching cultural conservation work, Cardin’s work ethos is strongly based on a respectful attitude to the craftspeople and an interest in proactively working towards a model of operation that would meaningfully benefit both interested parties (e.g. HK culture enthusiasts, researchers and conservationists) and the craftspeople. However, the practicalities of implementing long-term cultural conservation initiatives are challenging to navigate, especially when the action comes from bottom-up. Part of the path ahead, Cardin believes, is to find a balancing point between conservation work and commercial opportunities. If a cause for cultural conservation gathers enough voice and momentum from bottom-up, then perhaps it could meet in the middle with top-down policies.

Cardin also endeavours to promote the attitude of respect to communities that she can reach. Her experience in researching, writing and then promoting the annual Yu Lan festival at the neighbourhood of 30 Houses (unfortunately cancelled this year due to Covid-19) is one such example. 30 Houses is a historic neighbourhood ‘bounded by Hollywood Road in the north, Caine Road in the south and Old Bailey Street in the east…hiding beneath a modern one’.

above: ’30 Houses’ neighbourhood is centered around a group of stone houses on Staunton Street and nearby alleys, commissioned by a wealthy merchant in the 19th Century. Urban renewal and gentrification in the recent years have largely erased physical traces of the neighbourhood. On the day of Yu Lan festival, 6 flagpoles and lanterns are set up across the area to demarcate the perimeters of the disappeared neighbourhood as a ‘guide’ for the wandering spirits. Taoist priests and musicians also march through the neighbourhood to carry out rituals. (drawn and annotated by author)

Present-day Soho is a popular entertainment destination with art galleries, designer stores, Instagram-famous coffee shops and trendy bars. Many of the newcomers to the area – both local and foreign – know little about Yu Lan Festival and are therefore reluctant to lend financial support to organisers. In the past, members of the local neighbourhood would donate generously because they understand the cause and believe that these ceremonies bring good luck to the community, both living and deceased, close relatives and complete strangers. In the previous years, Cardin produced information pamphlets to be distributed in the local neighbourhood and hosted guided tours. She hoped to foster a culture of understanding by lifting the veil on these ‘superstitious’ rituals, demonstrating that they are based on universal values of filial piety and goodwill. The bar owner next door may still refuse to donate in the following year, but positive feedback from people now living in the area is a sign that these are effective first steps to break the current vicious cycle where a lack of mutual understanding leads to a fragmented neighbourhood and put valuable cultural practices at a more precarious position. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a virtuous cycle as well.

Education is critical to building this virtuous cycle. I have previously touched upon this aspect when developing the Pilot Project. The project’s architectural propositions were founded upon the hypothesis that sustainable development for Cantonese Opera is also dependent on the survival of Cantonese Opera’s peripheral crafts, and the extent to which both cultural and social knowledge related to Cantonese Opera is shared, transferred, and embedded in the common.

above: thinking about the role of education - for the lay public and crafts community - in implementing sustainable cultural conservation (drawn by author)

What was interesting to learn from Cardin’s experience is that the importance of such education is not limited to the lay public learning about the histories and technicalities of these crafts, but also applies to the community of craftspeople. She explained that these craftsmen often work within their own circle, operate on outdated models, and are less aware of the opportunities that the contemporary cultural scene may hold for them. Many craftspeople today continue to practice to make a living but are uninterested to take in apprentices. They fear that it would only be a waste of time for young people to invest their time in a ‘sunset industry’. This revealed the importance of educating the crafts community and debunking their common assumption that they have a minimal stake in building the image of Hong Kong. As such, Cardin positions herself as ‘someone who is working towards bridging this gap’ by learning about the challenges they face in sustaining their practice and proactively seeking out and developing platforms to display these crafts. Not everything can be measured in monetary terms. A timely morale boost can also critically impact the continuance of ‘fading arts’ and ‘sunset industries’.

Returning to the topic of Po Toi Island, Cardin noted that one of her aims for this piece was to bring the limelight to the people who bring the bamboo theatre to life in the first place. She noted that ‘every so often we see media coverage about bamboo theatres that boasts the size of the theatre and audience capacity and places the theatre itself at center stage. As much as the bamboo theatre creates a stunning setting, if we take a step back, it becomes obvious that it really should be about the bamboo masters. And media coverage from this angle is quite absent.’ As with other examples discussed in this conversation, the importance for cultural conservation to extend beyond hardware development and preservation is clear. It is just as critical to engage with the stories of the people who are the bearers of these practices, and in this case, Master Chan and his team.

The range of topics discussed in this conversation evidences the spectrum of histories, memories, artefacts and activities that make up Hong Kong’s identity, which comes from an equally diverse population. What, then, happens at the intersection of this collection of individual narratives and ‘culture-led’ development masterplans organized around a singular, overarching narrative? How could contemporary society meaningfully engage with culture, heritage, and arts through modes of education, production and cultivation, and not simply of passive consumption? How might we assume a more active role in sharing and passing along these social and cultural knowledge? What is the role of architectural and spatial interventions in supporting these wonderfully vibrant yet complex ecosystems?

Finally, I return to the beginning of our conversation, when Cardin recounted several encounters in other cities that eventually led her to this path of cultural conservation. On these occasions, she was struck by how knowledgeably and enthusiastically these people spoke about their own city or locale, which prompted her to reflect on the when she last spoke about Hong Kong just as passionately. I wholeheartedly thank Cardin for doing just that in this conversation, and for taking me on this journey that has revealed many stories that build up Hong Kong’s delightfully rich and complex cultural landscape.


Note: The interview was conducted in Cantonese and English. Above mentioned points about topics discussed are translated by the author.

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