In Hong Kong, It's a Privilege to Pee

A woman wearing a mask walks out of a restroom at Hong Kong International Airport Photograph by Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

People in Hong Kong and China are waging a flaming war in cyberspace about the weighty issue of public urination. At the center of the dispute, which has splashed from social media into local newspapers, is a hapless tourist couple from the mainland who let their toddler find relief on a busy street in Kowloon. That prompted a scene between the parents and angry passersby, along with subsequent condemnation from mainland Chinese fed up with haughty Hong Kongers looking down at them as unmannered rubes.

There’s at least one person relieved that the call of nature has suddenly become an urgent topic. Jack Sim, the founder of the Singapore-based World Toilet Organization, has spent more than a decade working to improve health conditions in the developing world by building awareness of the importance of toilets. He says 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to toilets.

Sim’s goal is an ambitious one. “We can position the toilet as a joy-giving room, a place of wonder full of pleasure,” the cheerful 57-year-old says. With that in mind, Sim’s NGO wants to make public sanitation fun. “Going to the toilet is the most enjoyable experience in your entire day,” he says. (Sim also has a bit of professional advice for me: I should interview people before and after they go to the toilet and compare how they behave. “You’ll find 99 percent are happier after the visit,” he explains.)

Making jokes about the loo is part of his strategy. “The subject of the toilet itself has been neglected in conversations, family dinners and normal conversation,” says Sim. “It’s like a taboo. Because of this, this kind of thing happens.”

The peeing toddler who has become a matter of public debate is exactly the “kind of thing” Sim has in mind. Apparently mom and dad couldn’t find a public washroom, even though they were standing in front of a shopping center. Since the incident last month, Hong Kong has become obsessed with bodily functions. The South China Morning Post described the incident in Kowloon as one of a series: “Recent photographs and videos of young mainland children urinating and defecating in MTR stations, in shopping malls, and on busy streets have provoked harsh words on both sides of the border.” (The MTR is Hong Kong’s subway operator.) Yet there are “thousands” of public toilets in Hong Kong, as the newspaper noted, “so no excuse for public peeing.

The Hong Kongers who have denounced mainlanders for using public spaces as their toilets need to try a different strategy, Sim says. “People do not change because you are going to scold them; they change because people feel proud about themselves,” he says. “Making the toilet sexy is the way to change their behavior.”

With that in mind, here’s a modest proposal for Hong Kong’s tourism mandarins.

Hong Kong promotes itself as Asia’s World City and is building an expensive, long-delayed new district filled with museums, theaters, and concert halls. So how about a Chinese version of Urinetown, the Tony Award-winning musical about a dystopian society where a rapacious government, in response to a long drought that has dried up the reservoirs, bans private restrooms and requires everyone to pay for the privilege to pee? After all, much of China is suffering from a water shortage, and many Chinese know a thing or two about corrupt officials, so the show would ring true.

Besides, Urinetown has plenty of useful reminders that could provide a public service to locals and mainlanders alike. For instance, these lyrics from the musical address the importance of planning ahead: “First act lasts an hour. Don’t assume you’re fine. Best go now, there often is a line.”

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