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Pictorial: China's Public Toilets
© by Maciej Tomczak, November 2006

Flush toilet is one of the few western-perfected inventions that work just fine. It's reasonably hygienic, clean, environmentally conscious, convenient, comfortable and reclusive. For most westerners the prevailing etiquette of using a bathroom is deeply ingrained as being necessarily private - any departure from the ritual is considered appalling and unthinkable.

In the 1974 movie The Phantom of Liberty Luis Buñuel crafted what has become one of the most famous scenes in the history of Cinema: an invited social evening during which a company of bourgeois friends sit on and use toilet bowls placed around a large table, while casually discussing the effect of 12 million tons of human excrement a day on the world environment. In the midst of the dignified conversation a guest rises from his toilet and politely asks for the way to the dining room. Once there, he locks the door and hastily eats in solitude before hurrying back to the party.

Buñuel's incongruous reversal of rites can be experienced in south-west China by a mere act of going to a public toilet. There is plenty of such establishments in most major towns. A typical design consists of a long concrete pad with a narrow trench down the middle. When there are no divisions, you have a choice of squatting en face or towards the back of one of the companions crouching next to you.  In the morning rush hours the facilities become quite popular, invoking the feeling of camaraderie with your neigbours and with the queue in front of your designated station.  It's a great place to chat, listen to phone conversations or share a cigarette...

But all is not lost for the Middle Kingdom yet. Beijing hosted the 4th annual World Toilet Summit in 2004 and there is a high-profile, multi-million dollar toilet reconstruction project spearheaded by the Chinese Olympic Committee. Since these initiatives are largely restricted to the rich China's East Coast, chances are that the surrealism of using a bathroom will not be lost in the poor South-west for time to come.




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