Archive | September, 2012

A letter of love to Beijing’s loos

25 Sep

Fear and looing in Shangrila: not a Beijing bog, I hasten to add

Woe is me, alas, alack, I miss you all, my dear Beijing buddies.

The hours spent waving fruitlessly for taxis on Huixin Dongjie… the sultry, stuffy nights drinking indecent amounts of 6 kuai beer in the alley… the crackle of static electricity when we brushed against each other during the dry winter (defuse with a key is the trick)… good times, eh?

I lose count of the emails I have written with the signature line “OMG I MISS YOU SOOOOO MUCH XXXXXX”. Woe, I say again, is me.

But there is one Beijing character whom I am unable to reach by email. One whom took some getting used to, it is true, but one whom I grew to love more than most of the drunken student expats I spent my time with in my days Round the Corner from You-Know-Where.

Because, while a toilet claims to be “public”, you can’t chat to it on Skype. A bog never updates its status, whether on Weibo or Facebook.

God, I miss Chinese public loos.

Thus it is fitting that my first Coopsick post to be penned 5,000 miles away from CFK be a tribute to the Beijing Bathroom.

Regular readers may of course point out that I have moaned considerably about my Chinese toilet experience. Let me clarify. The lav to which I now pay homage is not the broken piece of – to continue the toilet motif – shit that finally led me to flee apartment no.2. Nor is it the toilet of apartment no.3 – that too began to make odd noises by the time I left in August.

No, the toilets I miss are the public ones – the ones in the hutongs. I miss their functionality, their lack of any graces, and I miss their ubiquity.

For those who don’t know, the CV of a hutong loo goes something like this: hutongs are the traditional back alleyways of Beijing. They used to make up most of the city, but were almost all cleared away as the city went mental on high-rises in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Thankfully the mood of today is edging towards preserving them instead of mowing them down.

I say “thankfully” with reservations. Hutongs are very charming, very “Chinese”, but they are somewhat basic. The minute space in their painfully narrow doorways and pokey courtyards leaves little room for additional mod cons; mon cons like – say – toilets. So there need to be a lot of public loos for the hutong folk to spend their daily pennies and do their daily biz.

The lack of loos extends to fashionable hutongs restaurants and cafes in areas like Nanluoguxiang. Even those that have managed to squeeze one in somewhere bear signs warning patrons: “ONLY URINATE – for other purpose use public toilet across the street!”

Public toilets are not state-of-the-art. They are not dirty by any means. They made international news in May 2012 when Beijing authorities released regulations that allowed “two flies only” in public toilets. While I do remember occasionally seeing a third bluebottle sneaking into the bog, I was never as grossed out as I have been by toilets in London.

Flies aside, public loos exist on a sliding scale of fanciness. If a toilet in Beijing can answer “yes” to any of the following, then it is luxurious. If it has all of them, you know you are frequenting a first-class pisser.

1) Are there cubicles?

Many don’t. Picture a row of six or so squatters and sometimes a toilet seat plonked at the end. Like as not the entire bathroom will not have a door either, so go for the squatter furthest from the door if you don’t want every passer-by to see you as well as your fellow squat-poppers.

2) If there are cubicles, do they have doors?

Not that it matters. Many Chinese people, being used to the cubicle-less squatter row, don’t bother to close doors anyway, least of all lock them.

3) Is there a toilet seat rather than a squatter?

Many Westerners claim to be unable to squat flat on their heels, or don’t understand which way to face when using a squatter (an article on the World of Chinese website entitled Squat Toilets: What’s Your Position? has elaborated on this conundrum). Chinese people, by contrast, prefer the squatters, saying (quite rightly) that toilet seats are dirty. The bonus of this for squat-challenged Westerners is that if there is a massive queue for the standard squatters, the “disabled” seat can often be free.

4) Is there a sink to wash your hands?

Sometimes there is even soap and a hand dryer – and sometimes the hand dryer actually works!

5) Is there toilet paper?

If your bog has roll, you’ve truly won the loo lottery.

This checklist became embedded into my Sino-psyche. Popping a squat (yes, with heels FLAT) became second nature, and shoving a pack of tissues into my back pocket before leaving the house was as routine as locking the door or checking the oven was turned off.

I am surprised to see the horror on my British friends’ faces when I wistfully tell stories of nipping to the loo while dining in a hutong restaurant. There in the public bathroom would be the entire wait staff. Two or three would be squatting next to each other, one texting her boyfriend on her pink iPhone with bunny ear accessories; another might be chilling by the door with a cigarette; all of them would be gossiping loudly and paying not the slightest attention to me.

When my British friends pale and go “Oh my GOD”, another bout of Coopsickness strikes.

Unashamed restaurateurs are not the only reason I miss Beijing bogs, either. Unfortunately, my bladder has also grown used to there always being a toilet on hand. The other day I nearly cried when I went into yet another Starbucks, my internal organs at bursting point with the strain of one too many Diet Cokes, and I was faced with yet another sneering sign –  “TOILET FOR PAYING CUSTOMERS ONLY” – stapled to a locked door.

Beijing toilets may not be fancy, but you’d never have to buy a coffee or pay 20p for the privilege of using one. They work on that most basic of lavatorial facts – when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.

To all those still in Beijing – those who know via email, Facebook, Twitter that I miss them sooooo much – do me a favour. The next time you visit a public loo, say hi from me.

Say hi to both the flies too.