By Barbara Falconer Newhall
I’ve been contemplating writing this little photo essay on the toilets – public and really public — of China ever since Jon and I traveled there last September. My mid-century Midwestern upbringing was getting in the way — nice people don’t talk about poop and pee in public. Or in private, for that matter.
My nose for news finally prevailed over my Midwestern need to be nice, however, when a Mainland Chinese couple allowed their toddler to urinate publicly on the streets of Hong Kong.
A fracas ensued, with Hong Kong natives videotaping what they considered a violation of civilized Hong Kong norms. Babies and toddlers are free to pee in the streets on the mainland, apparently, but not in the former British colony of Hong Kong
Mainland China is a land – a really big one – of extremes. Subarctic temperatures in the north, and muggy tropical weather to the south. Farm villages still parked in the 19th century in the countryside, and brand-new, dizzyingly high skyscrapers in the cities and suburbs.
The same goes for the toileting customs of China; they run the gamut of extremes, from the quaintly pre-modern to the mind-bogglingly futuristic, including:
- People, kids mostly, relieving themselves in the street.
- Adults squatting acrobatically over traditional toilets flush with the floor.
- Foreigners seated on the occasional Western-style toilet with seat.
- Rich folks aboard state-of-the-art toilet-bidet combos that spray warm water to designated body parts at the press of a button. Sounds over-the top luxurious, but a healthy way to go, some say.
Right now millions of private bathrooms are being built into the millions of high rise condominiums going up in cities all over China.
Not so long ago, neighbors had to share a common toilet facility with others on the block. According to our Chinese guide, long lines to use the not-very-private facilities were common. So was reading the morning paper or chatting with a neighbor while squatting.
And now you’ve got the poop on China.
For more China travel adventures, go to “China’s One-Child Families — They’re for Real for Now,” “Shanghai Chic: Where a Woman’s Style Starts With Her Shoes” and “For China’s Young Fashionistas, the Cultural Revolution Is So Over.”
Above, Xitangzi Hutong in downtown Beijing. Neighbors in a traditional Chinese hutong share shops, courtyards — and a common lavatory. Left, a Chinese squat toilet, this one in a museum. You roll up your pant legs, roll down your pant tops, and stand on those little platforms on either side of the bowl. Then you squat and hope for the best. But which way do you face? Bring your own tissue and throw it in the basket when you’re done. Photo by BF Newhall