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Citizens Flow Happily Through Shanghai's Public Toilets

China: City's campaign to abolish the chamber pot has led to boom in lavish, 'hotel-grade' facilities.


SHANGHAI — They're made of marble, glass and granite, and though there's a small admission fee, they've become favorite neighborhood hangouts. New hotels? Nightclubs? No, they're Shanghai's new public toilets--part of this commercial city's campaign to abolish the chamber pot.

In a fast-growing city where many modern high-rises are made of ceramic bathroom tile, the Shanghai government--feeling flush--has invested nearly $1 million to build "hotel-grade" public toilets that resemble European villas, glitzy bars, even office buildings.

"We care about toilet culture," says Cui Yuzhen, 47, deputy director of the Jing An District Sanitation Department.

"The mayor of Shanghai decided we should do some real things to solve real problems for the people of Shanghai," Cui says. "Only 60% of families have indoor plumbing now, but by the year 2000 we will have ended the era of the chamber pot."

Residents without indoor plumbing use elaborately decorated but utilitarian "horse cans" that must be emptied and cleaned each morning--or, until recently, they visited old-style public toilets where patrons straddled a narrow gutter running through the facility.

Now they can skip straight to the new corner loo.

"This place is kind of like a bar," says Li Tianying, 46, the washroom attendant perched on a stool behind a marble counter at one such establishment. She could easily be dispensing shots of whiskey to the neighbors gathered around the counter, instead of squares of coarse toilet paper. "It's clean, and everyone you know comes by sooner or later."

Li greets a neighbor emerging from the stalls and hands the woman a green hot-water bottle she had left at the desk; it quickly disappears into the many layers beneath her quilted winter jacket. A retired teacher comes in out of the cold to do his daily exercises. There's not much room left--the anteroom is already filled with Li's friends from the neighborhood who have spent the morning here, chatting and resting.

"It's nicer here than at my house," says Gao Shunkang, a worker who was just laid off from his job at a costume factory.

"These new toilets represent the changing face of Shanghai," he says.

None more so than the newly redecorated three-story public washroom on Nanyang Street in the center of the city. The government has voted it China's "Best Public Toilet," and its proprietor, Du Rongfeng, 42, bowled over the competition to become Shanghai's "Model Toilet Worker."

Sanitation delegations from all over the country have come to take pictures and notes so they can build replicas in their home provinces. "Would you like to see the karaoke lounge?" Du asks as she stops mopping the glistening tile floor to describe the facilities.

She begins the tour on the ground floor, proudly pointing out the mosaic-tiled entryway, the wheelchair ramp, the automatic hand dryer, the air conditioning.

"We never have a bad smell here. This facility is very clean, very fresh," she says. The second floor is occupied by Sanitation Department offices, and the workers never feel as if they're toiling in a toilet building, she says. And there are other advantages.

"They have a washroom, but they come down here to use the toilets, because ours are so nice," she says.

The crowning glory, on the top story, is the conference room, with leather couches and a large-screen video/karaoke player.

"We rent this room to outside companies for their meetings, but it's also a nice place for the street sweepers to gather after they've finished their work," Du says.

As she speaks, a dozen orange-jacketed young women clamber up the stairs--the Nanjing Road Street-Sweeping Team, which has won the "Cleanest Street" award for 10 years running. Their work finished, they're ready to exchange their brooms made of bundled twigs for a karaoke microphone. Du continues the tour.

"This toilet is called a model toilet, so management is very important. It's a public window. But I've been working in toilets for 10 years, so I'm very good at this kind of work."

As she talks, customers keep coming in, paying their 20 fen--two tiny aluminum coins worth about 1 1/2 cents--and grabbing a sheet of toilet paper the color and texture of a brown paper bag.

It's a real social lavatory. A nervous man with a huge bouquet of lilies makes a pit stop before a date. A woman toting a Louis Vuitton handbag delicately plucks a sheet of toilet paper with freshly manicured red nails. An elderly man stops by to borrow a newspaper.

To Qiu Jingxiang, 44, the attendant at a toilet whose design echoes a European-style villa, money may be the most attractive aspect of his job. The salary is 1,000 yuan a month--about $125.

"Compared with a factory worker, the pay is quite high and the work is easy," he says. The toilet is across the street from the Hilton Hotel and near several international office buildings.

"Probably 1,000 people come here a day," he says. "Because of the area, a lot of intellectuals come by, and I like to meet people with a high education."

His own education, like that of most others his age, was interrupted in middle school by the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. His father was also a sanitation worker, but his daughter is a medical student. The only bad part of his job, he says, is troublemakers who come by and try to pull his chain.

"Some people try to pick a fight with me, saying: 'You do dirty work. You are merely the manager of a toilet.' But I just shrug and smile. If I quarrel with clients, whether I'm right or not, I'll lose my job," he says, lighting up a cigarette, an attendant's privilege. "And it's a good job. It's like working in a building from a fairy tale."

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