Monday, July 28, 2008

The Nu Toilet Revolution (Pre-Olympics)

Photo is credited to a random search in Google, bringing up nostyle's flickr image.

One week in Beijing and I feel like the proverbial local. It was a good trip, as any vacation that does not involve work should be but as always, there were highlights and downsides to them. I'll probably blog about the Beijing trip in segments since there are many stories to tell and history to relate and part 1 would talk about the infamous sanitary conditions of the city's toilets.

I visited Beijing 12 years ago on the school's Chinese Orchestra tour (how cool is that! I forgot I used to be vaguely musically inclined) and Beijing has had some quite horrifying toilet stories which I can attest for. The toilets then were all squatters and most had no doors. You will be lucky if there are any partitions at all in between you and your neighbours. Even if there is, the walls separating each "cubicle" were only waist-level high so you can choose to converse with your neighbours if you so wish or exhibit disturbing voyeuristic tendency. There was no proper flushing system so most of the time you find yourself hovering over a nauseatingly deep pit which contained the "essence" of your predecessors. However, ever since the right to host Olympics 2008 had been awarded to the city of Beijing, the Chinese government took the honour very seriously and launched a campaign to renovate all public toilets to "acceptable" levels. You can be sure that the 57 million yuan investment did not go down the hill. Almost all the toilets at conspicuous places e.g. shopping centres and places of interest are now clean and dry. There is still some room for improvement to reach the level of comfort I am used to in Singapore but going to a public toilet in Beijing is no longer a sensory war or as what I call it, a "mind-over-body" experience.

Most public toilets do have doors and their partitions now reach well over my head, covering me totally. If you plan on making some cursory toilet visits in Beijing just to say you've been there and done that, please do still bring your own stash of toilet paper. The toilet paper dispenser is located in a central location but generally unavailable in each and every cubicle and they do run out. There is still a very unfair proportion of squatters over the seated toilets since the Chinese prefer the squatters for hygiene purposes (they prefer minimal body contact) so be prepared to roll up your trousers or wear skirts for that matter. Oh and though there are now doors, some of the Beijing's citizens are still accustomed to the open concept. My travel partner, Eileen saw two women squatting in their half-naked glory with doors wide open, texting away on their mobile phones and came out of the toilet, reeled in shock. So what does it say? The purpose of having doors is lost on those who are used to the ways of the past.

A short excerpt from an article about Beijing's toilets before the upscale which I found quite amusing:
Zhou said that what tourists objected to can be described in four words: “smell” (tourists said they could find a toilet by its smell); “jump” (once inside they jumped to avoid stepping on residue left by previous occupants), “weep” (they wept when they squatted down and could see maggots in the pit below) and “smile” (when they looked up they smiled in embarrassment when they found they were not alone but with many other people who were staring at each other face-to-face.)

My misplaced sense of humour and savvy geekiness sometimes led to interesting finds such as The Bathroom Diaries which was described by the creator as "a world in which menus of restrooms were posted in the window along with the bill of fare". Very innovative and I have to agree that one shouldn't expose our tender bits to un-reviewed and uncharted zones in which we are not duly informed.

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