Happy Toilet Campaign

By Virginia C. Li

For all China’s antiquity and scenic beauty, its tourist industry has not flourished to the degree it should, because tourists’ bad experiences with public toilets. In China, your nose is all you need to locate the public toilets wherever you go. 

One time, I was on a luxury cruise from Hong Kong to Sidney. My husband and I left our  Monterey home for Hong Kong where we have a second home and a pharmaceutical company. We boarded first class on the liner to Sidney for our thirtieth wedding anniversary. While playing bridge in the fancy lounge, a large blue eyed woman recounted her tour in China, “The trip was great, but I only used the toilets in the hotels.” She rolled her eyes and laughed.

I lost face. China lost face. China’s modernization has left the toilets behind. I can’t understand how officials who have visited countries abroad have utterly failed to rehabilitate the public toilets at home.

China has since emulated Singapore’s “Happy Toilet” campaigns, awarding a five star rating for its public toilets. The campaigns were meant to booster China’s image for visitors abroad. It also showed China’s political will to attract investments from abroad and safeguard the well being of its citizenry. 

As I have always said, health is wealth. Clean toilets will speed up China’s economic development.

I favor the traditional Chinese squatting toilet because it is more hygienic than the sitting toilet, is easy to clean, and uses less water for flushing. That is, if it is properly maintained. The way I looked at it, the squatting toilets provide a built in exercise for the legs and the thighs. I have no doubt that squatting toilets deserve the credit for the agility of elderly Chinese women who, even in their seventies, have no problems getting up and down. Women in China actually have fewer hip fractures compared to American women, even though Chinese women consume virtually no dairy products and less calcium.

         I have a fantasy. I would love to study American women’s physical agility using the sitting toilet compared to using the squatting toilet in two comparable communities. My research would examine women’s leg muscle strength for a period of five, ten, twenty or even thirty years. Do women using squatting toilets have stronger fewer hip fractures? I am a housewife and not a researcher, so I suggested the study to a friend who is a public health educator and a researcher at a university in the United States. I told her that squatting toilets could prove to be a preventive measure to reduce hip fracture among elderly American women.  But my friend said that if she submits such a proposal to a foundation or the National Institutes of Health for funding, she would be laughed at. People would say that is un-American. 

I once visited the Fuzhou province in the Southern coastal of China to see the government-built public toilets. Until the reform in the early 1990’s, the kitchen, the pigpen and the family toilet were next to one another in home dwellings. For centuries, the combination served as a convenience for rural living. While the wife chopped vegetables and cooked, she could throw the leftovers to feed the pigs and speak to her husband, or any family member, who was using the toilet all at the same time. 

During the reform, a new ordinance mandated the separation of the three. In cities and countryside, public toilets were built with white tiles and colorful roofs in rectangular or pentagon shape. They resemble the little classic pavilions in the wealthy homes of a bygone era that had dragons and fu-dogs adorned the roofs, and the structures were surrounded by manicured shrubs and flowers. These new toilets all have small living quarters for the caretakers, usually retirees. They are spotless, odorless, and pleasant. People flock to them like hungry eaters lining up buying a McDonald’s Big Mac. The caretaker collects fees from users, pays rent to the local government, and whatever is left from the collected fee is his personal income. 

I have traveled the countryside in Yunnan, a poor, mountainous province in southwest China, famous for its scenic beauty and ethnic appeals. On one trip, I spent half a day as a guest of a town mayor who was eager to show me the new township hospital. Health workers wore spotless white uniforms, the corridors and waiting rooms were well swept and tidy. 

But when I went to the hospital’s toilet facility, swarms of flies darted around like soldiers charging in the battlefield. The stench, like poison gas, choked me. I retreated without the relief I sought. I felt sad seeing the hospital director and the health workers so oblivious to this level of basic hygiene. They know well that fecal matter, flies, and contaminated water are conveyors of cholera, dysentery, and more. A whole population could succumb. 

I am convinced that we must educate school children to form good habits early in life. The focus needs to be on hygiene and clean toilets. Now, if primary school students can use clean toilets at schools, can wash their hands with running water afterward, and have showers to bathe their bodies, they will acquire good hygiene habits and pave the way for these same practices at home and in the community.  These days parents give their children anything they want. These little “emperors and empresses” could become China’s new revolutionaries for toilet reform.

With this in mind, I donated funds to the provincial health bureau for building a model sanitary toilet in a village school with the understanding more funds will be donated. But the money went untouched for nearly a year. You know why? Everywhere, government bureaus took a cut on projects and used the money as a slush fund. Big buildings like schools, hospitals, apartments, shopping centers, or highways are far more lucrative than a school toilet project.   

When a new toilet facility was finally built for the Twin Oxen village’s primary school, I was invited to inspect the facility. I made a special trip and had high hopes that this was the first of many to follow.  

The health bureau provided a car and a guide for my inspection visit. The school was a two story building that had a paved playground. The village mayor, the township Party secretary, the school Party secretary and the principal all in short sleeve shirts met me in front of the school. They greeted me and delivered a luncheon invitation from the county magistrate. The principal led us on a narrow path to the left of the school. Then I saw the new toilet house- a rectangular white tile toilet facility with glazed green and orange color roof. Next to the gray brick school and the peasant homes, it stood out like a spring blossom in a field of wild mushrooms. 

We followed the Principal inside the girls’ facility. It was odor free. He called our attention to the red tiled floor and the three mini-sized white porcelain squatting toilets for students, and a regular size one for teachers.  Near the windows were two small basins for the children to wash their hands, and showers for bathing. Next door the boys’ facility also had mini-sized urinals, basins and showers. I asked if students were allowed to flush the toilets after using them. The principal assured me that was the case. I was concerned that only the teachers were allowed to flush the toilets in order to conserve water and to prevent the children from playing with the levers. The school was in recess for the summer, so I was unable to speak with any students to verify what the principal said. 

             Following the town mayor’s car to our luncheon appointment with the magistrate, I saw new construction everywhere. We passed four and five story buildings lining both sides of the six-lane highway. Further back were clusters of little villas of white tiled walls and orange colored roofs. These are the new farm houses. China’s countryside is changing.  

Our van stopped on a broad street near the center of the county seat. I was surprised to see three bridal shops within a few blocks displaying full size mannequins in Western style white bridal gowns. It was a sign of how far this farm county of half a million has come under outside influence. From time immemorial, Chinese brides have worn red; white was for mourning. 

The newly built six-story hotel was air conditioned. The copper colored marble floor and tall columns gave the hotel an air of opulence. The lobby lined with black imitation-leather chairs. A hostess in a fitted red brocade qipao with a high collar and long slits up to the thighs greeted the town mayor by name. She led our party to a private dining room where the magistrate and three county officials were waiting. 

The magistrate, a handsome woman of about forty, wore a light green suit. When everyone was seated and introduced, she ordered red and white wine. “We toast to our new friendship!” She stood up raising her glass. We all rose with glasses in our hands. She thanked me for my contribution to the town school. I raised my glass to thank her for her hospitality and her support of the school toilet project. She then thanked the principal, the town mayor, and the Party secretaries for the work they had accomplished. The principal extended an invitation to the magistrate and the county officials to inspect his school and the new toilet facility. He proudly announced, “Ours is the first in the county. Perhaps, in the province.” We drank emptying the glass bottom up cheering gianbai.

The waitress brought a large cold appetizer platter to the table. True to Chinese custom, the magistrate picked up a pair of chopsticks to put the cold meats and a wedge of thousand year egg on my plate as honored guest. The town mayor joined in the act of piling more food on my plate. I begged them to stop by putting both hands over my plate. I did not want to leave food to waste and did not want to stuff myself. But each time the waitress brought a new dish to the table, ten courses in all, piling the food on my plate started again. With each new dish, we raised our glasses bottom up, urging one another gianbai .  

“Our first priority is economic development,” said the magistrate. “In the past five years, businessmen from abroad have built joint ventures and invested in tanneries, chemical fertilizer plants, a canned food packaging plant, and a paper mill. They brought in modern technology. It has created jobs and raised people’s standard of living. The little villas you saw around the countryside are the result of our new prosperity. Our farm folks are living so much better today.”                                                                                                                                 Animated by the success of her county, she turned to me, “Our county needs outside investments to uplift our economy. A joint venture has many tax advantages. The company need not pay any tax for the first three years. We help our investors to cut through all the red tape for registration and licensing.”  She offered me prime land for the construction of a new building in the county, if I would be interested in creating a branch of the pharmaceutical company my husband and I own in Hong Kong. 

I listened to her boring speech. I had heard this kind of overture too many times. So I rose and said what was in my mind and in my heart, “I have a dream for China.  My dream is that sanitary toilets will spring forth in every city and every town, on every hill and in every valley, and in every home and every school. My dream is that children can grow up healthy and strong, because latrines and flies would have been things of the past, and people have clean toilets in public places and in their homes. My dream is that the leadership everywhere will take up the cause of toilet reform, and that the change will bring forth an awakening, a new dawn. This is my dream.” 

  Around the table, it was dead silence. The best I can say is that they seemed to be meditating and planning for the future.     

This piece is from The Feminist Toilet #1. To go back and read more, click here.

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