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Preparation for Olympics Begins in the Restroom

China is getting ready for a tourist onslaught in 2008 by pouring resources -- some say down the drain -- into upgrading its facilities.

August 12, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — At the Peking Man complex on the outskirts of the Chinese capital, tourists poring over the archeological site's ancient fossils, tools and historical renderings frequently wrap up their trip with a visit to the future.

Before piling back onto the bus, they often make a pit stop at the nearby four-star toilet. In addition to regular cleanings and good lighting, the stand-alone facility boasts a built-in hair dryer where travelers can blow away the dust of history.

China, intent on avoiding Greece's embarrassing last-minute scramble, is on a spending spree far in advance of the 2008 Olympics, with toilets a significant part of the planning. Headlines last week heralded a $12.1-million 2004 budget for public toilets in Beijing, a sharp increase from last year's figure.

"Capital Flushes Out Low-Standard Loos," blared the headline in the state-run English-language China Daily over an article detailing plans to add or rebuild 400 facilities in the capital.

Down a winding lane off a major thoroughfare is a scene with which Beijing residents are far more familiar. A community toilet in the Shengfang hutong, or lane, serves dozens of families that lack bathrooms in their homes.

Not only are there no hair dryers, there are no doors on the stalls, no toilet paper and no plumbing. Still, residents are not so sure all this spending on fancy commodes is a good idea.

"I'm sure the government is well-intentioned," said Hao Ruoyang, 24, a researcher who has lived a few feet from the toilet her entire life. "But investing in all this luxury isn't necessarily practical. They should make the shabby ones passable, not try to turn them into five-star hotels."

Others, such as Di Zhixing, a 69-year-old retired government property manager, fear that the next step will be to charge people, many of whom are barely getting by.

"What is the function of a toilet?" echoes a commentary in the Guangming Daily. "It's not a status symbol, it's just a toilet. The call of nature is more important than stardom."

Although few people feel much nostalgia for the old smelly communal toilets, their phased destruction marks another blow for traditional Chinese life. Strange as it sounds, China's public toilets often served as de facto social centers in the decades after the 1949 Communist revolution, when most cafes and tea houses were shuttered as decadent or extraneous to the ideals of socialism.

For many in the West, the idea of meeting your neighbor daily for a chat in a toilet without doors may seem a few leagues deep of unfathomable. However, in the days of strict communism, Chinese were trained to eschew secrets and share everything, in line with the teachings of Mao, Lenin and Marx -- even matters related to the call of nature.

"Privacy is a concept only recently adapted from the West," said Guo Shixing, a noted playwright. "Everyone was supposed to be equal. And if you had anything different from the others, you became a focus of attention. By sharing the toilet since childhood, you lost all shyness."

Guo's most recent play, "Toilet," which wrapped up a successful run last month at the Beijing People's Art Theater, depicts rapid changes in Chinese society over the last three decades as seen through the eyes of a public toilet warden.

The audience watches as several characters, including a thief, a writer, a contractor and a rock star, discuss life, education, international affairs and society on the "squat pots" of the early 1970s Cultural Revolution-era, the pay toilets of the politically active 1980s and the marginally more hygienic commodes of the "me-generation" 1990s.

The setting is a fitting place to consider the limits of human dignity, Guo said. "The characters peek at each other and have no respect for each other's privacy," he said. "And when the audience sees this, it arouses their own sense of dignity."

China, which recently laid claim to the first flush toilet after an antique latrine was discovered in a Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 24) tomb, has seen rapid changes in its public toilet system in recent years. In fact, they're nothing short of revolutionary, said Lou Xiaoqi, general secretary of a foundation helping to improve Beijing and pave the way for the 2008 Olympics.

After China failed in 1993 to capture the 2000 Olympics, the nation underwent a bout of soul-searching, he explained. "At some point, we put forward a plan to solve all the problems of Beijing, with public toilets at the top of the list," he said. "That's when we adopted the slogan 'Toilet Revolution.' "

Bringing improvements to the nation's public toilet network has meant reversing a Communist legacy that paid little attention to consumer infrastructure or individual amenities. China reputedly has some of the foulest toilets in Asia.

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