: : An under-appreciated supporting player, bamboo has always quietly faded to the background in the tiki bar scene. Despite the fact that this strange wood is firmly associated with exotic islands and mild sea breezes, we never really consider it’s importance because it isn’t quite as exciting as a blowfish lamp or an Arthur Lyman record. But really, what’s a tiki mug if it’s not flanked against a wall of bamboo, placed on a shelf held up by bamboo poles or held in your hand as you relax in your bamboo chair? : :

: : Bamboo has a long and fascinating cultural history, from its beginnings as a purposeful material in Japan to its eventual migration to the Western world to its place in the pages of the Ikea catalogue. Actually considered a grass, Bamboo can range in height from small one-foot plants to giant timber bamboo that can grow to over 100 feet. Different types can be found in very different climates, in many areas of the world, including Canada. Bamboo is in some ways an ideal material since it is strong and grows quickly yet is also light and flexible. : :

: : Bamboo has played an indispensable role in Japanese cultural life since early times, and was used to make a variety of items including fishing traps, flutes, writing brushes, weapons, art work, and architecture. In some cultures it is even used as food. In Japan, archaeologists have found bamboo “combs” and baskets that have been dated back to 10,000 – 300 B.C. : :

: : It wasn’t until the 16th century that bamboo was used as an architectural element in Japan. A style of architecture known as “Sukiya-Zukuri” used bamboo poles to reinforce clay walls, and later as a decorative material in alcoves, lattice windows and ceilings. This tradition carried well into the 20th century. After World War II, bamboo was actually used as a substitute for steel to reinforce concrete. Although it is a mystery exactly how and when bamboo first arrived in the Hawaii, it is believed to date back to when ancient explorers first discovered the Polynesian islands. In Hawaiian legend, Maui's grandmother Hina planted a variety of bamboo she had brought from Tahiti, but Maui cut his hand on the sharp edges when he tried to reach for it. Hina refashioned bamboo to be round and smooth on the outside to prevent this from happening again. Called `Ohe, Hawaiians found bamboo useful for both practical and decorative purposes such as water containers, knives, fishing poles, house construction, and even fire-blowing tubes. : :

: : In modern North American society, bamboo has taken on a primarily ornamental role. Entirely reminiscent of ancient “other” cultures, it is said that bamboo trinkets were popular in the Victorian era as a souvenir of travel. When tiki bars began infiltrating the North American suburban sprawl, it was only natural that bamboo really earned its place as a modern decor element, providing an obvious foil to the dark, stained woods popular in home furnishings at the time. In fact, some of the early James Bond films, like Dr. No, have scenes featuring bamboo walls and decorations. : :

: : While bamboo is certainly an unsung hero of creating that exotic island mood, in some ways it has eclipsed tiki as a decorative element in modern society. Even if you think Shag is nothing more than a carpet your parents once owned, you can have bamboo furniture in your rooms, bamboo rugs on your floors, bamboo blinds on your windows, and bamboo decor on your shelves and walls. For others, bamboo is the inexpensive building material of the future, able to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. And for the rest of us, there’s always that spot behind the bar in the basement. : :

Paul Corupe © 2002

Back to
Other  articles