inside thoughts on China and beyond

Big Business

Disclaimer: do not read this article while eating! And with that said, let’s dive right into it: China is changing rapidly and its toilets are changing with it. Notably slower though.

But toilets have always, how shall I put it, intrigued me. After all, we spend quite some time there. As a boy I would sit and study the patterns of the floor and walls while doing my business. In the shapes and lines on the concrete floor I would see the outlines of countries, of wild roses at the point of withering; the list of what I saw was endless and always growing. Sometimes though, I would see faces. An old man with a sharp nose and deep eyes, a girl’s face with wavy long hair falling down her bare shoulders. Sinterklaas. Well, today it happened again. Nearly half a century later -of which, I’ve just calculated, a remarkable 160 working days were spend on the toilet!- and on the other side of the globe, I was doing my business in one of Chengdu’s newly erected majestic shopping malls and guess what; I saw faces again!

Until recently, all Chinese bathrooms were simple and of bare concrete and too dark and dirty to admire faces, or anything else for that matter. They were, and for the most part still are, places you want  to avoid for as long as you possibly can. But there are times you simply can’t. I’m sure you know what I mean. Then you move in, find a spot that is relatively safe, do the thing you came to do and leave before anything living underneath has time to crawl up. Quite an adventure, really. China should keep some of these toilets just for that, and for historic records. But for once, this history is still far in the future.

Even the best of places keep these breeders of nostalgia. Years ago I studied Chinese at Chuan Da, Sichuan’s number one university, where whole blocks of student dormitories would share one shed of toilets along a bicycle path. The term ‘toilets’ is quite an overstatement though: the small concrete ‘garage box’ had a ditch of 30 cm wide and 40 cm deep carved out from the front to the end, where it disappeared under a wall that separated us menfolk from the women’s quarter, which, I was told, was about the same. Over this ditch students, staff and sporadically a yangguizi under pressure would squat, separated from each other only by small concrete walls no higher than a meter. They would read the newspaper which they would afterwards use as toilet paper, now still sticking out in front of them where a door was never planned. On the men’s side, the opposite wall -right in front of us squatters – also had a small ditch underneath that functioned as urinals. Aiming skills weren’t needed here. The idea was that water would constantly flow through both ditches and flush out whatever was drop into it to the other side of the wall -to the women’s side. But water hadn’t been seen here for a long while and all was left to dry or mold, depending on the season. The odor was stinging and even the burning of incense couldn’t change that.

Yet I often returned. I was intrigued by its calmness, and apart from the occasional fart and groan it was not unlike that what you would find in the old tea houses in Renmin Park. People were really taking their time. It seemed to me that here, in these toilets in the early morning, students found relief and could escape the never ending hecticness of daily life: of study and the family pressures that always loomed overhead; of macho-ism and the never ending pretensions and expectations to have to show off, of looking tough and be the best; and away from the overcrowded dorms. Here, with your trousers down, all were equal and pure. Here, you could sit -well, squat, to be more accurate- uninterrupted and read your newspaper. Here was a tranquility that was hard to find anywhere else.

When I had to visit a hospital last year, I went to one of Chengdu’s finest, but I found the toilets tucked away in the back of a messy and wet courtyard and joined 3 others already in action. You’re never alone here. The wives waiting near the entrance -are there no better places to wait?- and other passerby’s could look in and start a chat.

“Man, hurry up!”

“Not ready yet, wife!”

“Who’s that beside you?”


“Where is he from?”

“Where are you from?”


“He says he’s from out of China!”

“Why is he here?”

“Why are you here?”

“Doing my business.”

“He’s doing his business!”

“What business?”

“What business?”

“Big business.”

“He’s in big business!”

“How much does he earn with it?”

Well, let’s leave that conversation; it wasn’t going anywhere, really. But it’s amazing how Chinese can direct any conversation to money. Asking how much you make -and of course I wasn’t making anything with my big business- is usually the 2nd or 3rd question. Right after the ”where are you from?”  Even during these brief moments in the dark and hideous bathroom of this top hospital, the obsession with money is remarkable. It is understandable though: in a developing economy like China with large and growing income differences and many new opportunities and even more wanting to grasp their chance, stories go around. Stories of success and jackpots. Life is all about money.  Even in the toilets. I have no scientific proof of it, but I am confident that the state of public toilets and bathrooms is a more trustworthy measuring tool for economic achievements than the local stock exchange or the number of skyscrapers. A chain is as strong as its weakest link. A country is as developed as its dirtiest toilet. Not its cleanest.

So here I was on the other side of the economic spectrum, seeing faces on the floor. This was a high class shopping mall where the toilet floors and walls and ceiling are covered with large slabs of marble. Shiny marble. And just as everything else in this mall, every tile has its own cleaner. It really was a place for kings, a place to enjoy and savor; a place to take your time and study the shapes on the floor. And marble has many shapes; and lines and cracks. But I had long lost the skill to recognize objects in them. That was an extinct creativity of a bygone age. Now lines were just that: lines. I, after all, had become an adult. And adults don’t notice the lines and shapes, let alone give meaning to them. We hurry or worry, but more often than not do both at the same time. For, after all, we have learned that time is money.

So you can imagine my surprise when I recognized a face on the toilet floor; one that was moving. The face pealed itself away from the marble cracks and lines and came to life. And when a phone went off from the throne beside mine, the owner still groaning loudly, the face was joined by a hand holding a mobile that moved to the ear. The face spoke.

Wei ?!?”


“I’m at the toilet but nearly finished -groan- I’ll call you back in a minute.”

The phone was put away and the reflection of my neighbor’s face on the marble floor moved out of sight, to be replaced by what carried it. This was different, obviously. Time to look away and finish my business. Could he see me as I saw him? Which brilliant designer thought of leaving such a gap beneath the bathroom dividers? Remnant of the past, surely. I have to say, though, that as far as I remember, doing business in China has never been this clear and transparent.

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