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Chambers at Large in Shanghai's Toilets

I was told a lovely little anecdote by a young woman, who I shall call Ellen, now in her late 30s, which highlights the insular knowledge of those living under the Communist regime in China.

When KFC opened its first restaurant in Beijing, it was labelled Kung Fu Chicken, people unaware of the fine cuisine from Kentucky. As it was such a big event Ellen’s grand-mama insisted they should wear their best outfit: a military purple top with several breast pockets. On arrival at KFC Ellen was surprised to see everyone dressed identically; an accolade to the new arrival. There was a queue of over 200 people wishing to eat, thus the fast food meal had to be consumed within 10 minutes, fast by even KFC or McDonald’s standards. Ellen recalls being disappointed when she had to eat with her fingers, hoping to be provided with a Westernised knife and fork. However, she was keen to use a Western toilet and impressed by the cleanliness and sparkle of the restaurant was horrified by the state of the lavatories.

Chinese toilets are holes in the ground, over which one is to squat, similar to those I’ve used in N. Africa. Ellen was shocked to see footprints on the toilet seat, where Chinese women, unaware of Western habits, had tried to perch in order to complete their business. I laughed imagining petite grandmothers precariously balancing like drunken birds on the thin porcelain basin. Ellen continued, saying she overheard women commenting that Western women must be more skilled than Chinese acrobats!

The skyscrapers may appear Western, but the toilets are not.

At the end of a busy day of sight seeing in Shanghai I learned Chinese bars and restaurants do not have to have toilet facilities. Stopping to look up and down the Nanjing Road, the main shopping street, I took note of Samsung ads, the Apple Store and Gap, but was more interested in the bar on the corner where I headed with a fellow weary traveller, Carol, to enjoy a cold beer.

Carol and I wanted the loo and were somewhat surprised when the young waitress pointed to a large concrete building 300 yards across a flagstone square. Off we set on our mini hike to find the toilets were public conveniences and were, yes, squatting toilets. Carol, being the lady she is, extracted a small packet of tissues from her pocket, whereas I, having taken the advice of the travel company quite literally, took out a whole roll of toilet paper from my rucksack.

The toilets were extremely clean, being manned (or should I say womanned?) by two middle-aged ladies and I carefully minded the step as I hopped up into a spacious cubicle. I pulled my shorts down as far as I could without having to take them off and squatted, praying I would not splash my clothes. I didn’t and pleased with my exertions, squatting being an exercise many Westerners only perform at the gym, I threw the used toilet paper into the bin provided. There was no flush, so whilst I re-dressed, I presumed if one wants to do a number 2 one has to aim for the hole! I won’t bother asking. There are some things in life I’d prefer remain a mystery.

Of course, I forgot all about the damn step up into the cubicle and I fell out of the loo with an unladylike squawk, managing to retain my balance and not to fall onto the tiled floor. Carol thought my antics hilarious and mentally kicking myself for not having learned to look where I am going, I washed my hands and was handed a paper towel by one of the attendants. I thanked her and wondered if I should leave a tip, but neither Carol nor I had proper change, so we nodded our thanks and returned to the bar to enjoy a beer.

The hotel facilities are extremely modern, extremely clean and extremely comfortable

Of course, by the end of my holiday, I discovered many public conveniences actually have Western toilets at the far end of the row of cubicles, but by then, it was too late and squatting had become almost second nature and now, I can squat with the best of them in the local gym!

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