Letter From China

Priority 1: Get Toilets. No. 2: Flush.

(By Ted S. Warren -- Associated Press)
By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 12, 2005

SHANGHAI -- Like a business magnate primping for the cover of a glossy magazine, the people who run this city are eager for the world's attention. Billboards proclaim that Shanghai has secured the right to host the 2010 World Expo, with construction crews already erecting the requisite palace of glass and steel for the 70 million visitors expected at the science and technology fair. Scarcely a day passes without the dedication of a new five-star hotel, another cheetah-carpeted eatery presided over by a Parisian chef, another science park setting up on the city's fringes.

Yet even though this city of 15 million has already cast off so much of its gray and communist hermit past, Gu Chenghua knows that something imperils its emergence as a glittering metropolis. That is, he says, the dearth of "key facilities that reflect the advancement of our city."

He is talking, of course, about the toilets.

And not only the sorry and disgusting state of the public facilities themselves. "We have a problem with our basic public toilet culture," says Gu. As the secretary general of the newly created Shanghai Municipal Toilet Association, it is his job to fix that problem.

The city's public toilets, compact buildings charging usually 12 cents each visit, remain the first stop of relief for many less affluent residents without home plumbing, as well as for taxi drivers, construction workers and anyone else who happens along. No one goes to a public restroom anywhere to revel in the pristine environment, but China takes the experience to particularly unpleasant depths.

In a public toilet -- be it at the park, on a main thoroughfare, at the airport or in a train station -- the air is often so foul that you limit your breathing. The smell wafts out into the surrounding neighborhood. You keep your eyes turned upward, to avoid fixing on the squalid floor. Most toilets have no toilet paper. Many lack running water. Everywhere, flushing seems optional. People with major business to attend to must typically execute it in full view of everyone else over a big gulley without privacy walls. Sit-down toilets? Rare.

For a visitor, such a trip to or even whiff of a pungent, distressingly public commode has a way of obscuring the city's audaciously capitalistic progress -- your Formula One auto racing; your Pavarotti concert; your Giorgio Armani boutique in the same prime real estate as your delectable Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant. Never mind that you can lift a glass of Dom Perignon from the 86th floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, or ride a maglev train at more than 200 miles an hour to the airport.

Gu is tasked with changing this humiliating contrast. A career bureaucrat who eschews jacket and tie for the plaid button-down of the everyman, Gu talks about toilets and bodily functions with neither embarrassment nor irony. He might as well be discussing traffic engineering.

As the secretary general of the newly convened Toilet Association, a super-grouping of 41 government bodies, plus companies that make toilet paper, bathroom deodorizer, soap and the toilets themselves, his is a position that goes far beyond mundane matters of hygiene and plumbing. As Gu sees it, nothing less than Shanghai's bid for global respect is riding upon his ability to deliver a public toilet revolution.

"When people are not at home, a public toilet is an indispensable public facility," he says. "Through the public toilet, you can see the degree to which the city is developed and civilized. We need to ensure that people have a comfortable experience as they relieve themselves."

This may not be as simple as it sounds. Imagine, if you will, being handed the job of persuading the French not to smoke, the Australians to limit their profanity, the Americans to opt for smaller portions. To the Western eye, China is no archetype of good manners. The soundtrack of the streets is men hacking before spitting on the pavement. Children are allowed to relieve themselves in the street. And in a land in which private property was until recently a counterrevolutionary concept, people have been known to liberate the toilet seats and even the plumbing from their local public facilities.

Happily, Gu is no lone crusader but part of a multipronged attack. The city government has outlined plans to add 800 public toilets in the downtown area by the end of the decade and another 1,200 in the suburbs, bringing the metropolis-wide total to 5,000. That would ensure that at least one such facility could be found within any 300-yard radius, and, with some open all night, it could limit sidewalk urination, a common scene in front of a floodlit skyscraper in the heart of the city.

In Shanghai, where the party still retains tight control, government officials and journalists alike do not lack for the ability to stay on message. So it is with the toilet campaign, which has been covered in the local press with the same solemnity as the North Korean nuclear crisis.

"City to host toilet talks," read the headline in Shanghai Daily earlier this year over a story announcing another international distinction: The World Toilet Expo was coming to town -- "China's first-ever toilet exhibition."

Needless to say, Gu and his colleagues at the Toilet Association went to scrutinize the wares on display -- new portable toilets, models that simulate the sound of running water to mask unappealing sounds, others that play music, and still others that examine the human output for signs of health problems. Later, the group traveled to Europe to take photos of public toilets from Holland to Italy. They are now drawing up specifications for the new facilities that Shanghai should embrace. They're also studying the architecture and psychology of the ideal public toilet: More walls for greater privacy; more barriers to sound.

Already, there is progress. Off Huai Hai Middle Road -- the city's glitziest shopping street -- on a lane in the shadow of the Four Seasons hotel and around the corner from Calvin Klein Jeans, a particularly revolting public toilet in a poor neighborhood used to broadcast its location with rank fumes.

"It was disgusting, just filthy," said Li Hongfang, the on-duty attendant. "If tourists came through here, it had to give them a really bad impression of the city."

But because of a recently completed renovation, the building is now adorned with lime-green tiles and gleaming sit-down toilets that flush automatically. The housing is still decrepit, but the smell is part of the neighborhood's past.

To Gu, the facilities themselves are only the beginning. He is seeking nothing less than what he calls "the promotion of public toilet culture" -- a modern way of approaching the experience, one that emphasizes politeness, respect for public property and, above all, flushing on the way out.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company