THE Great Public Toilet Design Competition, which got underway in Beijing last Tuesday, has rapidly become the talk of the town, particularly among the residents of the old city who are forced to use the facilities currently in place. Sponsored by the Beijing city government, the competition is designed to elicit a wide range of new toilet designs which will ''contribute to the development of the capital's civilised construction'', the Beijing Daily reported. Government officials, including the vice-mayor, Zhang Baifa, had placed great emphasis on the competition which was hoped would bring lasting benefit to the people of Beijing, the newspaper said. Unless you have actually visited one of Beijing's public toilets, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about, but get within 50 metres down wind of one of them and you can rapidly identify what the problem is. Put bluntly, Beijing's toilets stink. Walk into a public convenience in the old city and you are immediately overpowered by a heavy, musty aroma which frequently produces bouts of nausea among the uninitiated. On hot, humid summer days, the stench is so obnoxious that only the most desperate customers would dare venture inside. The aroma derives from a fundamental design flaw in the public toilets, namely that the waste is not flushed away but left to fester in an underground pit for several days on end, attracting flies, mosquitoes and various other undesirable pests. The waste is eventually cleared away by huge vacuum cleaner-like trucks whose operators have a reputation for being rather sloppy in their approach to toilet clearance. Passersby would be well advised to keep a safe distance from the trucks when the operators are going about their business. Even after the truck leaves the toilet, residents are not safe because the end of the vacuum tube, covered in waste, is left swinging in the open breeze as the truck slowly makes its way down the narrow alleyways. Apart from those few public toilets which now employ a janitor, the conveniences are hardly ever washed or cleaned and litter is often left to pile up for several weeks before someone takes the initiative and disposes of the offending detritus. And finally there is the problem that when the sign outside the toilet says public convenience, it means PUBLIC. There are no individual stalls, just a long line of squat holes which are wide open to public view. While this is not such a problem for the locals who are used to communal living, foreigners and many middle-class Beijing residents find the prospect of sharing their most private moments with about half-a-dozen strangers distinctly off-putting. Public toilet design has slowly improved over the years, but nearly all Beijing residents agree there is an urgent need for a radical overhaul of the basic design concept. The most pressing need is to hook the conveniences up to the regular sewerage system, but in the old city centre, where many buildings date back to the middle of the Qing Dynasty, this is easier said than done. It may be that the only solution is the one the city government is currently embarking on, namely to knock down the dilapidated courtyard houses in the old city and move residents out to high-rise apartment blocks (with indoor plumbing) in the suburbs. This, however, is a time-consuming process and will not eliminate the need for public toilets. Beijing residents can only hope that the great public toilet design competition does live up to its expectations and provide them with some measure of relief from the dirt and fumes that currently pollute their neighbourhoods.