think every foreigner, and probably a lot of Chinese people, have a great many horror stories about the state of China’s toilets. As public facilities go – well they are just extremely public. If you’re one of those people who have that nightmare about appearing naked in public in front of a bunch of strangers, traveling in rural China – or even urban China – is probably not for you.
It wasn’t so long ago that while enjoying an evening out in one of Beijing’s brewpubs that have been popping up all over the place of late, that I needed to answer the call of nature. This being in Beijing’s old hutong district, where many bars, restaurants and even homes still don’t have private facilities, I had to go across the street to the public toilet, in the cold.
I was in for a shock – not only did this one not have any doors, it didn’t even have the low partitions that at least give some semblance of privacy. It was just one large room, with a row of holes in the floor. “How can this still be in 2017 in a city as modern as Beijing?” I thought. The room was occupied by a young lady, who was dexterously squatting over one of the holes while at the same time conducting a loud phone conversation. She was adept at multitasking. I decided to see if I could find a newer toilet that at least had cubicle walls, if not doors.
When I first came to China, I was a tour guide, and I quickly learned where the best toilet facilities were in any of the sites we commonly visited. When my guests first arrived, after their anxious questions, I’d give my groups a lesson on toilet etiquette. When we were out and about, the older American and British tourists were not adept at squatting, so I would direct them to the often one and only disabled toilet, which would usually be Western style. At one point, a star rating system for public toilets at tourist sites was brought in, especially at famous places like the Forbidden City in Beijing. I’d point out to the tourists, this is a four-star toilet, so make use of this one, or this one is for emergencies only. They grew to trust my judgment.
The Ming Tombs Museum outside downtown Beijing had a five-star toilet. It boasted a small lobby with a television and a payphone, air conditioning, and nice lady toilet attendants who handed out a square of toilet paper and tried to direct foreigners to the Western-style ones. It held the title of China’s top public convenience for some years in tourism circles. One set of toilets at the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xi’an had lots of Western-style conveniences, but these were mostly locked so they didn’t get dirty, and therefore the attendants would have to clean them. But at the nearby Huaqing Hot Springs resort, there was another five-star toilet, and it had an enormous marble lobby resplendent with a rather large fish tank.
Another problem for the tourists was actually getting to use a toilet – Chinese people often lined up in front of individual toilet doors rather than making one line as my queue-loving Brits did – and then they’d be shoved to the back of the line once a group of grannies rushed in after finishing their morning exercise in the park.
I could never figure out why the toilets were so bad at the Great Wall. Not only were they pretty dirty and smelly, but at probably China’s foremost tourist attraction, these toilets were still quite primitive. I once asked a good friend of mine why public toilets couldn’t be kept clean, particularly as I had observed how house-proud people in China are. The next time we met, she told me she’d been mulling it over, and she thought that Chinese people care a lot about their immediate family and environment, but don’t pay too much attention to things that were not for their own use.
Of course, what foreigners struggle with the most with is the lack of privacy. These days, being foreign doesn’t attract too much attention in big cities, but try going to a public toilet in rural China, and you’d find yourself at the center of some unwanted attention.
But there is also a serious point about cleanliness and sanitation too. It may, as some doctors say, actually be healthier to squat, and there is some benefit from not having to touch a public toilet that may not be clean, but it is certainly time to flush out the bad public conveniences in China.
That’s why the news that China’s sweeping “toilet revolution” hasn’t come a moment too soon. They’ve already started upgrading the facilities at tourist sites, and it’s going to spread to rural areas soon as part of the nation’s drive to eradicate extreme poverty.
Some of the tourists of the future might be sad that they don’t have the same toilet tales of the past after they’ve visited the Middle Kingdom, but I am looking forward to inspecting the results of the latest revolution to see if it’s flushed with success.