Splendid relief

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2007, 12:00am

Going to the toilet in some of the most remote corners of Hong Kong will soon be an upmarket, hi-tech experience. Remote public lavatories are being upgraded from the common, green-tiled establishments found in hundreds of villages and along rural paths into well-designed palaces of ablution. In isolated areas, they now come complete with solar power.

A visit to a public loo will in future be a pleasure for tourists visiting such out-of-the-way destinations as Kat O Chau, the famed Crooked Island in Hong Kong's extreme northeast. There, old-style dry-pit toilets have been replaced by a stylish modern block. 'The new toilet near the pier even has running water so tourists can flush and also wash their hands,' marvels grateful village representative Lau Chi-on. Now he hopes the government will refurbish two other old toilets in the village, so residents can enjoy the same standard of lavatorial splendour as visitors.

The revolution in rural toilets is no accident. It's the goal of a HK$92.8 million programme to convert 100 strategically located, old-style dry toilets into modern facilities. Started two years ago, it is now about 70 per cent complete. The idea was prompted by concern about hygiene, and the knowledge that a visit to a traditional dry-pit toilet was a challenging cultural experience for tourists. The first of the new loos were installed in places like Li Chi Wu, a hard-to-reach village which is now a stop on the very popular Island Hopping Tour of the glorious coast near Kat O.

This tour was devised by the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau; it would have been counterproductive to spend money and energy to open this delightful area to foreign visitors only to have tourists reeling in shock and disgust from a reeking dry-pit public toilet.

For half a century, these toilets were the sole places of relief not only for visitors but also for residents in some less-developed villages. They were not the most pleasant places to use; some were homes to hordes of ferocious mosquitoes and other insects, as well as spiders of imposing presence. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and Home Affairs Department decided something had to be done. Planners drew up a list of sites where replacement toilets were urgently needed. These included Luk Keng near Sha Tau Kok, a popular gathering place for weekend walkers, and Tap Mun, a favoured island retreat in Mirs Bay.

The new loos are stylish. They boast improved ventilation and lighting. There are even infrared sensors that control water taps. Designed by government architects, some toilet blocks use the latest technology and are claimed to be of international toiletry standard, whatever that may mean. The one at the pier on Tung Ping Chau in Mirs Bay, Hong Kong's most inaccessible island, is impressive. The island has no water or electricity supply. Planners overcame this by using solar energy to provide lighting and to transport water from a rain-filled tank. A biochemical filter treats waste water to be used for flushing; it's a 21st-century commode on an island that time forgot.

Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories