old toilet




five-star toilet

Five-Star Bathrooms

Beijing Wants Its Olympics Flush With Success

September 2, 2004


BEIJING -- German tourist Martin Vom Scheidt has been in Beijing only a couple days and already he has visited one of its cleanest sites: a four-star public bathroom.

"It was kind of strange," he said, sipping a beer outside the youth hostel where he was staying. "You come into a room and it looks like a hotel lobby. It has carpeting and some chairs."

He was also surprised to see vendors selling drinks in the bathroom "lobby" and Chinese men standing around doing nothing but smoking.

Yet most public bathrooms in Beijing are grim and noxious places, lacking such niceties as toilet paper, plumbing, stall doors and even commodes. A slot in the floor opens into a not-deep-enough pit and often there are no stall dividers, forcing users to share an experience with their neighbors that's better left unshared.

"If a foreigner sees one of these bathrooms, they'd definitely turn right around and leave," said a Beijing grandma who gave her name only as Zhang Y. R. "I've seen it happen."

That's the kind of reaction the city government is worried about. Last month it announced it would invest more than $12 million a year to build and upgrade bathrooms in time for the 2008 Olympic Games, twice the amount it spent last year.

To show how seriously it takes the problem, China has joined forces with the WTO -- the World Toilet Organization, which is based in Singapore, one of the world's most hygiene-obsessed countries. Beijing will host the World Toilet Summit in November and Shanghai will be the site of the World Toilet Expo & Forum next May. Participants will exchange the latest information on toilet technology and management.

In its effort to bring its bathrooms out of the Stone Age, China has instituted a star-rating system. So far, out of 7,700 public bathrooms in Beijing, only a few hundred are star-rated, largely at places most frequently visited by foreign tourists, such as Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall.

The rest are foul-smelling and barely tolerable. But they are the only kind available in the old neighborhoods of central Beijing, where hundreds of thousands of residents live in traditional homes with no private toilets.

Du Bai, another grandma, is passing the afternoon knitting with Zhang in their neighborhood hutong, or back street. Du said her 4-year-old grandson refuses to go to the neighborhood bathroom because of the putrid smell.

"He's also afraid he'll fall in," she said.

Instead, he insists on walking 10 minutes to the Drum Tower, a popular tourist attraction, where the city has upgraded the public bathroom to provide such basics as stalls with doors, toilets that flush and a faucet and sink.

Far better-appointed are the five-star bathrooms at Tiananmen Square. The sink counters are marble and the stall doors are labeled "sitting toilet" or "squatting toilet" in English and Chinese. Upbeat music plays on the speakers. On the walls of one is a black-and-white photo exhibit of old toilets.

But such lavatories are few and far between. Canadians EN Richardson and Elliot Milian, both 24, have been backpacking China and have seen it all. What has struck them most is the lack of plumbing and privacy in public toilets.

And on a trip back to Toronto in the midst of his year-long Asian wanderings, Richardson realized that East and West have very different concepts of smells.

"When I got to Toronto, the first thing that struck me was the artificial scents everywhere," he said. "The Glade plug-ins and floral sprays and toilets that smell like maraschino cherries."

Beijing's plans include building more luxury bathrooms, renovating existing toilets and demolishing nearly 40 percent of the rest.

Du and Zhang said spending money to improve toilets is fine but won't accomplish much unless the government undertakes a coordinated effort to clean up the entire city.

People have no compunction about littering on the street. They certainly don't hesitate to make a mess in public bathrooms.

"It's good," Zhang said about the government's toilet plans. "But it won't resolve the core problem."

Which is?

"People," she said.

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