Westerners bowled over by state of public toilets

2012-11-19 05:14:06 GMT2012-11-19 13:14:06(Beijing Time)  China Daily
A public toilet at an industry development zone in Liaocheng, Shandong province, on Tuesday. (Mu Yizhou / China Daily)A public toilet at an industry development zone in Liaocheng, Shandong province, on Tuesday. (Mu Yizhou / China Daily)

It takes a certain strength to climb the Great Wall — and an entirely different kind to use its restrooms.

Public toilets in China continue to be the subject of much complaint, particularly among foreign visitors, either because of their lack of cleanliness, lack of cubicles for females, no soap or no disabled access.

To stop the griping, authorities nationwide are working to provide more pleasant accommodations for people who want to "spend a penny".

The Beijing Tourism Development Committee started a campaign this year to improve toilets at places of interest.

"Some toilets had been out of service for a long time," said Zou Honglei of the committee's public service department.

China does not have a national standard, but in general, he said, the more popular the location, the better the restrooms.

"No one wants to go to a scenic spot with a smelly bathroom," he added.

Beijing's Commission of City Administration and Environment, which is responsible for public toilets, has introduced several measures such as the "two-fly rule", which states a toilet cannot have more than two flies, and a command that the ratio of female to male cubicles must be 2-to-1.

And it is not just the capital. Shenyang in Liaoning province has invested 5 billion yuan ($790 million) since 2008 to build high-quality toilets and revamp old ones.

"Most public toilets are now no more 300 or 500 meters apart," said Li Cheng with the city's environmental sanitation division. "Many old toilets have been torn down."

Shenyang has come up with a regulation on management that requires public service institutions and real estate developers to include decent restrooms in new constructions.

"Complaints have decreased by 70 percent since 2008," Li said.

Tianjin has also been replacing old restrooms. According to the city's construction project management office, 71 public toilets were built in the past two years, including disabled access and other necessities, such as tissue and soap.

So, are China's restrooms becoming more hospitable to foreign visitors? To mark World Toilet Day on Monday, China Daily asked four people their opinions.

Mark Bailey

36, an IT technician at ESPN in Los Angeles

My first encounter with a squat toilet in China was at a Beijing market in 2000. All the guidebooks warned about squat style, so it wasn't unexpected. It's still better than a tree or bush.

What did shock me was that 12 years later there is still no soap, no sink, no door on the stall for privacy. Whenever I 'go', I'm always stared at as I'm a foreigner. This makes it extra uncomfortable.

The weirdest experience was on a train. When I flushed, I was surprised to see the tracks rushing past underneath — and by the resulting rush of air on my sensitive areas.

There do seem to be a lot more Western-style toilets these days, most of the squat toilets are in older buildings.

Ross Lee

38, an engineer from Honolulu, Hawaii

I prefer squat toilets. Compared with Western-style toilets, I find it a lot more sanitary. I don't have to touch the toilet seat. With this in mind, it makes sense that the Chinese have been squatting for centuries.

China has come a long way, and it's starting to clean up toilets and the smell. My first encounter with a Chinese toilet was at a Guangzhou train station in 1992. It was just an open pit. It was disgusting. I had to hold my breath and just not look down. It was hard for me, as toilets in Hawaii are mostly clean and smell, like, fragrant.

At the time, toilet paper in China was like sandpaper. It was pink and very rough on the skin. Also, toilets didn't flush and you could see human waste on the ground. Of course, now you don't see that.

I do hope squat toilets don't disappear entirely because they are part of China's charm.

Emily Zhang

19, a student in Berwyn, Pennsylvania

I was born in Beijing and moved to Pennsylvania when I was 2. It wasn't until 13 years ago that I came to Beijing and saw a public squat toilet.

I hadn't used one before so I didn't know what to do. I almost didn't 'go' at all. However, my grandpa had a bathroom worker show me how to use it. Fortunately I was young, otherwise I'd probably have been too embarrassed.

Later I used other public toilets that had stalls that didn't hide anything, holes in the ground.

Now that I'm back in Beijing, I don't really see much improvement. Public toilets in the US are generally much nicer — at least you never see cubicles that don't have doors.

Michele DelGiorno

30, medical office manager in Somerdale, New Jersey

I have to admit, the bathrooms here really put Westerners to the test. I'd come across "squattie-potties" before, in Italy, so it was not that hard for me. No paper or soap, also fine, since you can bring those with you.

However, something I could never get used to are those restrooms with 'troughs', where everyone is 'going' into the same stream. My friend was once in the stall next to me and a receipt fell out of her pocket, and I watched it float all the way. It's very strange. Also, most toilets here still have no doors.

The major difference between US and Chinese toilets is the standard. In the US, toilets should have disabled access, but clearly it's not the case in China. Meanwhile, if restaurants had bathrooms like some I've encountered in China, they'd be shut down.

I don't believe there has been tremendous improvement, but restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai have cleaner toilets.

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Editor: Yu Runze
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