For generations, bamboo theatres have been a thread that ties together Hong Kong’s present and past. Made of bamboo sticks and clad with metal sheets to protect them from the weather, they are built all over the city to celebrate traditional festivals, as documentarian Cheuk Cheung has explored in his work. And while many appreciate the ingenuity of their construction, the story of the people who build them has often slipped through the cracks.

Steven giving Islanders a helping hand with moving the surplus building material

That’s what motivated me to travel to Hong Kong’s southernmost island, Po Toi, with fourth-generation bamboo master Chan Yuk-Kwong. He runs one of Hong Kong’s two bamboo theatre companies and his life has revolved around the craft since the age of 13. Now, more than 30 years later, he is just as driven as he was back then. His portfolio includes the critically acclaimed West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, which his crew built in 2014, according to a design by architect Raymond Fung, with a programme curated by director Frederic Mao. And Chan is already passing the torch onto a new generation. His 29-year-old son, Smallman, has already worked in the industry for 15 years.

Their most recent project was a particularly complicated theatre built in front of Po Toi’s Tin Hau Temple, which has safeguarded the island since 1835. Straddling the edge of a rocky cliff, it looks out over the South China Sea, whose bounty has sustained generations of Islanders. On a foggy night, as waves of ship horns cascade upon the shore, it is not difficult to imagine navigating through the murky darkness, looking for Tin Hau’s divine protection for comfort.

Smallman Chan laying metal sheets on the roof to protect the audience from rain and wind

My arrival on Po Toi was greeted by a committee of island residents who hosted a simple but solemn ceremony to notify Tin Hau that the construction of the bamboo theatre was about to commence. “When I was little, the bamboo theatre was already built on this cliff the very same way,” a committee member told me. He reckoned the tradition extended back at least a century.

Nearby, the sound of laughter led me to Chan, who was playing cards with his eight-man crew: his son Smallman, Kenny Lee Ka-Chun, Steven Chan, George Yeung, Ho Shing-to, Uncle Ching, Sunny Cheng—nicknamed Jackal—and a man who introduced himself as Bell, explaining that the others called him Char Siu Bau.

They wrapped up their game and we all headed back to the temple. While the crew performed their own ceremony to ensure a safe construction process, I discovered that preparation for the theatre had already begun. Construction materials were piled up on raised platforms between the temple and the cliff, including fir logs (Shān 杉), Moso bamboo (Máo zhú 茅竹) and pole bamboo (Gāo zhú 篙竹). It turned out that transporting the bamboo was no easy feat. It had to be done on the days of highest tide, which are the first, third, 15th and 18th day of each month, according to the lunar calendar.

The crew lifting, passing and moving the material upward under foggy, sunny and windy conditions

Lee—a walking encyclopedia of bamboo theatre history—gave me a quick 101. He explained that the techniques they use to build bamboo theatres date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and while they were once common throughout southern China, only Hong Kong still maintains the tradition. Lee also said there have been some technical modifications that have streamlined the construction process. By contrast, mainland China has simply banned the construction of bamboo theatres.

Bamboo theatres are normally built on a level sports ground, or in the plaza in front of a temple. But the cliffside location of the Po Toi Tin Hau Temple raises some technical challenges. Normally, construction would start from the stage, which provides the fundamental measurements the whole theatre is based upon. But in this case, the workers needed to start from the base, next to the water. The crew passes each heavy piece of material upward like an army of ants.

It isn’t only the site that is challenging. The bamboo workers are completely at the mercy of the weather: wind, sun and rain all pose their own test to physical and mental strength. “At this time of the year, northeasterly wind hits this area. Some of us can’t even lift and move a log,” said Lee with a grin.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.