For 81-year-old widow Zhao Jingrong, it was an experience so traumatic that her relatives moved her from Beijing back to her native Hebei province. At lunch one day in April, she was relieving herself in the nearby dark and damp public toilets which serves hundreds of families in her neighbourhood of one-storey homes so crowded a bicycle can barely squeeze between them. Mrs Zhao, old and frail, slipped on the dirty, wet floor which left her clothes covered with filth. Her neighbours rushed to her rescue, took her home where they washed her and gave her a clean set of clothes. Her relatives decided Mrs Zhao, who lived alone, would be better off living with them. 'The toilets here are awful,' said one of her neighbours. 'We hate going. People are supposed to come morning and evening to wash them down. But they often do not come in the evening. This area is due to be redeveloped soon, so they will not build new ones.' Dark, smelly and fly-infested public toilets are the curse of thousands of Beijing residents who still live in rabbit warrens of one-storey homes that do not have their own facilities, unlike their luckier cousins in new high-rises whose apartments are equipped with a private toilet and shower. The issue provokes regular anger in columns of the city's newspapers, with readers complaining about the hygienic habits of their compatriots, the inaction of authorities and the demolition of existing facilities that are not replaced with new ones. One facility overlooking a major road, for example, was bulldozed and turned into a shop. It is now home to a photographic studio, with a handsome portrait of a German military attache in full uniform in the window. 'There is no money to be made from toilets,' the studio owner said. 'There has been no bad feng shui for us here. Business is good.' But why are the public toilets so poor in a city where 96 per cent of households have colour televisions - 21 per cent have two - 94 per cent have refrigerators and 90 per cent have washing machines? Some Beijing people blame the two to three million migrant labourers, many of whom live in makeshift huts and dormitories and have to rely on the public facilities. 'They are ill-educated and some never went to school at all,' explained a well-dressed woman. 'These migrants are very dirty and have no idea of hygiene. We despise them.' A spokesman for the Environmental Hygiene Management Bureau of the city government said that this year it planned to spend 60 million yuan (about HK$55.73 million) on upgrading a thousand of the city's 6,000 public toilets, a record amount for such a project in a single year. 'If we have sufficient money, we plan to upgrade all 6,000 over the next three years, to include flush water, ventilation and other improvements.' 'Most will remain free of charge. The maximum entry free is 30 fen. The public has welcomed the upgrading, with facilities for the old and handicapped,' he said. Most spectacular are 38 model toilets, costing an average of 200,000 yuan, built in 1995 after a public competition in which architects were invited to submit a design and companies invited to pay for one. Lou Xiaoqi, who devised the competition and is now father of the city's toilet revolution, said public demand for better facilities reflected the profound change of Chinese thinking. 'Before, people were satisfied to be fed and clothed, have a job - and with public toilets as they were,' he said. 'But now people want food with nutrition, job satisfaction, a better environment and cleaner toilets. Young people use the facilities in the high rises and do not want to go back to using the ones in the old neighbourhoods,' he said. An official survey published recently found the average Beijing resident spends 44 minutes a day on personal hygiene, up from 38 minutes in 1986. 'Before, no-one paid attention to this problem. Now it has become an important part of improving the urban infrastructure,' Mr Lou said. 'There is even a firm producing toilets that flush automatically,' he said. 'Such a contraption was unimaginable a few years ago. Peasants who use it for the first time find it frightening.' The toilet crisis is part of the poor state of Beijing's environment. Its 13 water treatment plants turn out 2.53 million cubic metres of water a day but cannot keep up with demand that is rising 6 per cent a year. Nor can the city properly dispose of its daily 12,000 tonnes of rubbish. Last weekend Mayor Jia Qinglin admitted that everyone, from central government leaders to ordinary citizens, was angry about 'the filth and chaos' of the city's environment.