Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hutong Days

In my autobiography there is a vivid description of the Bombay chawl life and the trauma that inhabitants faced every morning waiting in the queue to use the two pubic toilets, which served over 50 residents staying in one floor. While the reference to the toilets in my story provided an opportunity for the chief guest to crack a joke at the function to launch the book, it has also provoked other readers to comment on the subject.

Recently I was reading a book on China by Pallavi Aiyer ( Smoke and Mirrors- My China Experience) based on her experience working in China for five years. She has devoted half a chapter under the heading ‘Hutong Days’ to the community toilets used by the residents, mostly consisting of elderly and retired people and how the public toilets provided great opportunity for Socialising by the locals.

This article is an effort to draw your attention to that portion in the book which according to me makes for interesting reading. What follows is mostly excerpts from the book

“The hutong in many ways was the last bastion of the collective culture of communism
hutongs located in different suburbs of the city with a total population of about 5,00,000 became national target of the governements, in their modernization programme to make the city Olympic worthy.

Elsewhere in Beijing this was being achieved through building snazzily designed opera houses or sporting stadia, but in the hutongs the municipal authorities had wisely zeroed in on the public toilets.

Hutong loos had long transcended the functionality of mere toilets. They were public spaces where residents gathered to share gossip and chattily exchange news of the latest developments in their bowel movements. What coffee shops were to Paris, W.C.s where to hutongs.

But despite their social significance, the majority of hutong toilets consisted of a series of un-partitioned pits in the floor with no flushes or running water. The mess of numerous users would then pile up until the evening, when a pump truck made the rounds of the alleyways, sucking up everything from the pits and carrying it away.

In the winter of 2004, Beijing hosted a meeting of the WTO. Unlike the more well known World Trade Organization with which it shared an acronym, the World Toilet Organization focused on toilets rather than tarrifs. For three whole days more than 150 washroom heavyweights from nineteen countries, including academics, sanitation experts and toilet designers, thronged Beijing’s loos, examining, discussing and suggesting ways of transforming them from the fetid to the fragrant.

In the summit’s aftermath the city government announced that it would spend $10 million a year until 2008 on rebuilding and upgrading hutong bathrooms into what the local media dubbed luxurious lavatories, suitable for use by even the sniffiest of foreign athletes.

A star rating system was devised for public loos, ranging from one to four stars, depending on the facilities made available. The loo bang opposite our Siheyuan ( House where Pallavi lived) underwent its makeover only a few weeks before we moved in. To the disappointment of our neighbours it had only warranted a one-star construction, tucked away as it was in a cul-de-sac, few foreign visitors were likely to chance upon it during the Games. The chief improvement in the new one-star toilet, I ascertained was the introduction of foot-operated flushes.

‘Oh, it’s much better than before,’ said the mild-mannered and balding Mr. Zhou, one of the fifteen-odd inhabitants of the plot to the right of our courtyard. ‘At least the smell has gone.’

Stricken by thoughts of the smell the unrenovated, flushless loo would have sent wafting over into our courtyard on a hot summer’s day, I sent up a silent thanks to the Olympic god. It used to stink of rotten eggs, Mr. Zhou continued with scatological glee, but then his expression darkened. But ours is nothing much compared to some of the other new ones.

Indeed, only a few minutes away at the head of neighbouring Ju’er or Chrysanthemum hutong a full-on-four-star luxurious lavatory had been constructed as far back as 2002, predating the WTO summit. This loo had been built soon after Beijing won the bid to host the Games and it was to become the prototype for other post WTO summit toilets in the area; the kind that Yu Bao Ping and Lou Ya would eventually work in.

Infrared-automated flush commodes, electric hand driers and signs in English, Chinese and Braille decorated the building. As the first four-star toilet in the area, the Ju’er lavatory had quickly become a major attraction, drawing in customers from as far as four hutongs away. Mr. Yang, the local bicycle repairman, set up shop outside the loo to capitalize on the crowds. On most nights impromptu barbeque parties took place at the toilet’s doorstep organized by the entrepreneurial old Wang, who owned the cigarette and beer shop opposite.

A few stained couches, their insides spilling out, were set up. Others brought folding chairs. Mahjong sets and chess boards made an appearance. Soon a motley crew of regulars at the toilet entrance emerged and the locals jokingly began to call them W C Julebu or the WC Club.

For the WC Julebu, as for many other communities in the city, the Olympic games had proved to be a double-edged sword. Improved toilets built in the name of the games certainly represented a major improvement in the quality of hutong life but between a third and half of all the hutongs that once crisscrossed their way across the capital had been demolished to pave the way for the New Beijing, Olympic Beijing that the red banners promulgated.”

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