Brian's Blogs

Spare a thought for Beijing’s millions of homeless flies

It must be tough being a fly in Beijing. The heartless bureaucrats in the Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment have just come out with a new pronouncement that in future no more than two flies will be allowed to reside in any of the city’s public lavatories.

No warning; no negotiations with the downtrodden fly population. Just an announcement that, in effect, two’s company while three’s a crowd. And in future, overcrowding will no longer be tolerated.

To understand the problems that this will cause, might I refer you to a posting on a site calling itself the Beijing China Travel Blog. It warns somewhat apocalyptically that: “Old style Beijing hutong toilets have no sewer system, everything just empties into an enormous hole directly underneath where you squat. The hole slowly fills up through the week until the ironically named ‘hygiene truck’ arrives to suck it all out with an enormous tube. Visiting one of these establishments during a sweltering Beijing summer as a week’s worth of Chinese shit ferments a few feet below you is an experience to be forgotten if possible. The stench brings tears to the eyes and makes the head swim, you can actually feel the heat rising up from beneath you. The air blackens with thousands of flies and you walk out feeling as if you’ve just showered in that which you just got rid of. The smell, which you first caught a whiff of at the end of the street, will follow you for about three days.”

Pretty graphic, what, even if it does somewhat overdose on hyperbole? Notice that penultimate sentence: The air blackens with thousands of flies”. Now do you see the problem?

Given that Beijing has hundreds of public loos – they’re on practically every street corner – that means there are going to be many millions of flies affected by this new ruling.   Actually, I read somewhere that officially Beijing has over 12,000 public toilets and they have long been a source of complaints from tourists and residents alike. Much was done to clean them up prior to the Beijing Olympics with the city investing 400 million yuan to give its public toilets a facelift from 2005 to 2008, with thousands of extra portacabin-type toilets also brought in for the jamboree. But those extras have long been removed and the complaints continue.

Even Michael Bristow of the BBC reported recently that "Beijing public toilets are not known for their welcoming appeal. People often smell them before they see them. I only venture in at the most desperate of times. And the word cleaning seems misplaced when applied to a public lavatory in Beijing. Dirty grey mops are occasionally dragged across a toilet floor, but not to any great effect. There is seldom toilet paper - or soap to wash your hands. The best (or worst) that can be said about Beijing public loos is that there are a lot of them about."

A friend of mine was even forced to complain when visiting the German Embassy recently at the state of their (western-style) toilets. The deeply ingrained yellow stains around the toilet rim showed they hadn’t been cleaned in months and when asked if she would now clean them properly, the (Chinese) cleaner shrugged her shoulders and walked away.

Now I know what you are asking yourselves. How could the city’s bureaucrats be so beastly when it comes to bringing out new laws that will have such a profound affect on the itinerant fly population? Well, it’s all to do with the latest regulations on making Beijing a more pleasant place for the (human) populace to live.

Having lived for about a decade in the Middle East, where the state of the average public loo is nothing short of disgusting – and that is putting it very mildly – I can on the one hand well understand how the authorities want to improve the lot of the average Beijinger when it comes to ‘enjoying’ the conveniences provided. 

However, the new rules, which, it appears, are only advisory, apply at the present time only to "toilet management" in parks, hospitals, shopping malls and railway stations. So I guess that lets the hutong restrooms off the hook – for the moment at least. The commission will soon carry out an inspection of all toilets around hospitals, bus stations and tourist areas – so the flies better watch out…

All toilets will also have to have bilingual instructions – in both Chinese and English. (Now there’s a thought. When was the last time you read an instruction on how to use a lavatory? We’re not talking about high-tech Japanese conveniences; just good old holes in the ground, squat toilets and urinals. Ask your friends. Is there really anyone you know who doesn’t already understand the process of answering a call of nature?)

They also set a limit on how badly the restrooms can smell, and apparently the smell of each loo will be rated on a 4-tier scale with 5 professional smellers assigned to smell each stink. According to the rules, if 3 of them consider it "over-smelled", the authorities will regard the toilet as having a substandard smell and something will then have to be done about it.

According to Global Times, there are 15 licensed professional smellers with the Laboratory of Odour Pollution Control, under the Ministry of Environmental Protection. China started using humans to detect pollution in the late 1990s and you can now find them in a number of polluted metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chengdu.

In the laboratories, these professional sniffers expose themselves to various odours that they have collected from garbage sites and compost fields and use their noses to determine the presence of pollutants. Six smellers sit together with a tester who smells the original samples of the odour and dilutes them. Then each sniffer takes three bags of three litres of odour, one of which is mixed with the sample collected, while the other two are just clean air. The sample is diluted in each round until all of them are no longer able to smell anything. Then the density of the odour is calculated by the level of dilution involved and a report will be handed to the local environmental protection bureau.

In general, the left nostril catches more smells than the right one, and women have a better olfactory sense than men. There are no professional qualifications to be a smeller. But anyone who wants to join the profession has to go through a strict test and you have to be a non-smoker, non-drinker, aged between 18 and 45, with no conditions that might damage your sense of smell. As well as avoiding many cosmetics, the day before tests, the smellers can't eat spicy food such as onions and any professional smeller who catches a cold has to be replaced while he or she is sick. The salary for new graduates is about 3,000 yuan ($475) a month. They also have to take a test every three years to make sure their noses are still functioning at full capacity.

Posts on Chinese microblogging sites numbered over half a million within two days of the announcement from the Municipal Commission. Heavy with irony, some pointed out that other cities, such as Nanchang in the south, had already passed similar rules but that those cities, being less important than the capital, permitted three flies.

It was also pointed out that this is not China’s first foray into fly management. Nationwide rules issued in 1998 were more generous, permitting up to five flies depending on the grade of the toilet, the state-run Beijing Daily reported.

Of course, in fairness there is a serious side to these regulations. Many people who live in the city's old neighbourhoods still do not have their own toilets - and have no choice but to use public conveniences.

One netizen also pointed out that the new policy will have an adverse affect on works of art. “One of the most profound and beautiful pieces of art produced in China in the past years relies on the flies of a Beijing toilet. The artist, Zhang Huan, covered himself in honey and sat meditating in a Beijing toilet for an hour while the flies quietly landed on him,” he wrote.

Perhaps one of the city’s many art galleries – or even 798 Art District itself - might consider throwing open their (loo) doors for the newly displaced fly population, thus being kind to the homeless whilst at the same time protecting Beijing’s raw material for its arts scene.

But this all somewhat begs the obvious question: Who, at the end of the day, is going to tell the flies?

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