Transport and logistics

Meet the Hong Kong-born engineering whizz behind the city’s biggest bridges

British civil engineer Dr Robin Sham, the engineer behind the construction of Kap Shui Mun Bridge, was responsible for the world’s longest suspension bridge made of Lego blocks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 1:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2018, 12:43pm

Aspiring doctors grow up with a yearning to restore people to health, teachers to educate the next generation, and entrepreneurs to build business empires.

For Hong Kong-born British civil engineer Dr Robin Sham, it was a desire to build bridges – both literally and figuratively – that drove him. Now the veteran is looking to pass on that passion.

Sham was recently made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or CBE, for his services to civil engineering.

He is now embarking on a global mission to spread the art of bridge building, starting with schools.

“I hope more of the younger generation will consider civil engineering,” he said in an interview with the Post. “There is something exciting about creating something big and being in control of your destiny.”

He designed a Guinness World Record-breaking suspension bridge in 2016 built entirely of Lego blocks. It was the world’s longest, and the “megastructure” was reconstructed in Hong Kong last month.

Sham, a fellow at the British Institution of Civil Engineers, said he saw a romanticism in physically building a piece of infrastructure that would stay in its shape, form and place down the generations.

“There are many other jobs I could have done but I wanted to work in a profession where I would be able to see the results of the end product; something tangible, something physical,” he said.

“Euphoric” is how he described the feeling from finishing a bridge that towers over a body of water or connects two previously isolated land masses. 

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“You get an [inner] happiness from seeing the object physically done, not reading about it in a book – not as a concept, but seeing it completed, in front of you,” he said. “You know its history, all the problems, resolutions and … the cumulative efforts behind it.”

Two fruits of his labour tower over Hong Kong’s western waters – the Kap Shui Mun Bridge and Stonecutters Bridge, both essential components of the Lantau Link, which connects the city to Hong Kong International Airport.

“Kap Shui Mun was the first bridge I worked on [in Hong Kong]. It brought me back to Hong Kong on my first job [in the city] in the mid-1990s,” said Sham, who is now head of long span and speciality bridges at global engineering firm Aecom.

The top priority for the Kap Shui Mun Bridge and also the Tsing Ma Bridge – which forms part of the Lantau Link but which Sham did not work on – was for them to be completed in time for the airport at Chek Lap Kok to open before Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

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“Failure, we would say at the time, was not an option,” he said.

The engineering challenges were huge. Sham recalled how the 820-metre Kap Shui Mun structure had to be built in just three to four years.

“Construction was one of the most demanding bridge projects in the world. It was to carry a highway, an airport railway and had to be built fast with high precision,” Sham said. “We had to build the bridge stage by stage while doing the track work.”

Ultimately, Kap Shui Mun and its sister, the Tsing Ma Bridge, were completed on time, just two months shy of the July 1 handover in 1997.

The engineering techniques Sham’s team pioneered were applied to later projects including the Sutong Yangtze River Bridge in Jiangsu province, opened in 2008, and Stonecutters Bridge across the Rambler Channel in Hong Kong, which was finished in 2009. The two are the second and third longest cable-stayed bridges in the world.

Sham has also worked on projects from Scotland to India.

“I often say bridges connect people and places both physically and emotionally. I don’t think there are many objects in the world that can accomplish that,” he said.

Bridges can also transform economies, he said, recalling an experience in Bangladesh working on the Padma Bridge.

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“In Bangladesh, children follow you and ask for money and food. As an engineer, I asked myself: ‘How much can you give?’” he said. “That’s when I thought, when this bridge is completed, goods from India will go all the way down to the south. It will have a much longer-term benefit to the community.”

The two-level steel truss structure will link the country’s northwest and east to its southwest from next year.

With modern-day technology, Sham said bridges could now be built almost anywhere. He expressed amusement when asked if one could connect Hong Kong Island and Kowloon across Victoria Harbour.

“There are a lot of possibilities,” he said. “I definitely want to see and I hope in my working career it will happen.”