Building castles in the sky

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2006, 12:00am

In 1981, Sunny Im Shun-lee worked on a soaring structure that rose in the market square in Tai Po. For a week, thousands of people packed it daily to watch the highly vocal actors who are the mainstay of Cantonese opera. Then Sunny pulled the building down.

In the 25 years since then, he has erected that identical structure hundreds of times and torn it down just as often. Now aged 49, he is a master builder of the spacious temporary opera houses that rise like immense bamboo and tin mushrooms in village squares and car parks.

Each is a temporary work of art, a monument to the skills of the rural scaffold worker. Putting up the intricate network of poles, beams and roofing materials is like composing an enormous, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. 'You've got to get every piece right every time, or the whole structure becomes unsafe,' he said. Sunny left school at the age of 15 to 'climb the bamboo'. He and his team of 10 scaffolders are now between 40 and 60 years old.

'It's a trade that is dying,' he laments. 'The work is too tough for young people. They don't have the stamina to work 12-hour days lugging heavy bamboo poles and climbing up and down to lash the timbers into place.

'When I was a kid, I always thought the job was great. I imagined I was like a monkey climbing the bamboo and swinging off the poles. To me, it was the best job, the most fun.

'It's hard, unrelenting work, but I love it. It gives me a lot of satisfaction when the opera house is constructed, the stage and chairs are in place, the musical instruments and sound equipment are all set up and the musicians and actors start their performances.'

Then Sunny and his team stand in the background, listen appreciatively to the music and enjoy a well-earned, cold beer.

'I'm not educated,' Sunny said as he listened recently to a performance by Koi Ming Fai, a perennial favourite on the rural Cantonese opera circuit. 'But I'm proud of what I do.' Last year, Sunny and his team built a massive edifice in Kam Tin for a special festival. It was four times larger than the normal mobile opera house that is erected and taken down scores of times every year.

Each time, it's a delicate operation. The same work may be repeated time after time, but there is no room for error. The 12,000 pieces of bamboo that are tied together to form the opera house have to fit into specific locations to ensure strength and solidity. 'Thousands of plastic ties are used,' he said. 'When I started, we used to bind the poles together with strips of bamboo, but the plastic makes work a lot easier.'

Watching the team is like looking at a well-practised aerial ballet. As Sunny says, the agile mature workers swing through the network of rising bamboo like monkeys. They have to meet tight deadlines: when a public car park or street is the site for a festival opera house, they begin work within minutes of police closing the area to vehicles.

Most of the performance halls are designed to hold about 600 people seated under the 15-metre ceiling, and twice that number standing. There's usually an even larger appreciative audience standing outside the open-walled structure. But last year - when the team put up the largest temporary opera house in the world - about 5,000 people were able to cram under the tin roof.

Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories