Loo and behold!

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am


This column is called So Near, Yet So Feared for obvious reasons. The mainland is our hinterland and yet that large and looming entity is greatly dreaded by many in Hong Kong.

I get the impression it's not communism, being rounded up in the middle of the night or being robbed or cheated that are feared. The thing most frequently mentioned as the scariest on the mainland is ... the state of the toilets.

But really, why do toilets have to be so clean, so white-tiled and sparkling? Is it something psychological, something about what we do in them - and we all know what it is - that is so disgusting that we need roses, warm towels and a constant stream of ambient perfume to take our thoughts away from the most basic of human needs after breathing?

When it comes to mainland toilets, I've pretty much seen it all: three shallow depressions in the packed-earth floor to accommodate 1,200 students in a middle school; a corner in a sty with four or five pigs hov-ering around; two planks over an outdoor cesspit that must be balanced on as vultures circle overhead; a corner of someone's front yard, also replete with pigs. And, of course, the innumerable bus stop toilets: usually a trough without doors where the participant's whole being is concentrated on not, NOT, touching the walls. If there are walls.

Still, the central government has in recent years put considerable money and manpower into upgrading public conveniences, to great effect, especially in Guangdong province.

It's pretty much shine, shine, sparkle, sparkle wherever you go. That's why I was mildly surprised the other evening while drinking beer in excellent party town Sei Wui when I wanted to use the restaurant's toilet and it appeared there was none.

What? The staff had told me to go up the stairs and turn left. I walked back into the little room with the 20-watt light bulb and walls that had possibly once been white tiles. It certainly smelled like a toilet, but there was no porcelain, not even a hole with two bricks.

Then I saw it: a small hole in the gap between the wall and the floor; from a distance it looked like a broken tile. The room was actually the staff shower - with benefits. There was a showerhead and everything; ample opportunity to, if not flush, at least rinse. There was also a bucket and a mop. How could I have doubted this room?

In my relief and joy, I still took great care not to skip down the Dickensian staircase, with its hundreds of years worth of kitchen grease.

My friend J wasn't that cautious, though, and only a surprisingly solid banister and lightning-fast reflexes saved him from serious injury.

Still, in a funny sort of way, I was glad to see a small part of China resisting the march down the gleaming path of modernity.