21st century Shanghai, with its ultra modern skyline and high fashion boutiques, is barely recognisable as the time-stuck town I visited in the 1980s, when the dominant fashion designer was still chairman Mao. Even Shanghai hipsters of those days still wore blue worker’s smocks and caps with the little red star, and the architecture of the city was unchanged from the 1940s, though what was once a posh hotel under the British might have been turned into a factory under the communists. This great city was my port of entry into China, and I enjoyed exploring it.

It was while wandering randomly through the streets and back alleys of Shanghai in 1987 and taking photographs of whatever took my fancy, that I got a sudden red alert from my lower intestine; PURGE. I have no idea what had precipitated the crisis. Dodgy dinner the night before? A greasy breakfast that very morning? Or a simple case of travel tummy? Whatever was kicking up a ruckus downstairs, it was urgently shoulder-charging my emergency exit and I needed to find a safe place to deploy, preferably free of women and impressionable children, all of which were in abundance in a crowded Shanghai back alley with no lavatory in sight. Sweat broke out on my brow as I concentrated on a full body kegel.

I’d learned a few survival words of basic Mandarin while working in Taiwan the year before, and one phrase of special importance was “廁所在哪裡?” which I used to ask a local man the way to the nearest lavatory. While my pronunciation was probably terrible, my body language was eloquently telling him that something wicked his way cometh. He gestured emphatically down one end of the street and I dashed away, while he made to clear the blast area himself. Sure enough,  a little further along I saw a hand written sign in Chinese characters, I recognised as “MEN’S TOILET“, and an arrow pointing down a side alley.

I’d already been in Asia long enough to know the necessity of always taking toilet paper wherever you go, as most toilets won’t have any. Clutching this small packet of toilet tissue in my hands like a magic talisman, I hobbled along as urgently as I could with buttocks clenched tighter than the fists of a Kung Fu master. It wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that I struggled with that oh-so delicate balance between moving quickly but not so fast that I’d precipitate the inevitable. At the end of that alley I followed another arrow pointing to another alley, and more arrows pointing up a rickety staircase, along a landing and down again, then out along a muddy track into a vacant lot to a simple concrete shed with a tin roof. A sign identified this as my target, and with great relief I dashed into this crude outhouse with all possible speed.

It was one big room with a concrete floor in which were two room-length trenches piled intermittently with human excrement. Amazingly, some fellows who’d made a few such piles had decided to hang out, enjoy the ambience and read their newspapers as they squatted astride this mess, rather than seek a more pleasant atmosphere elsewhere. “I can’t do this” I thought to myself and immediately walked back out the door I’d just come in. “Get back in there, NOW!” barked my bowels. With a deep sense of dread, I re-entered, straddled the poo-sluice, dropped my pants and squatted, telling myself I could pull the pin on my gut-grenade and depart the reading room before the dust settled, and anyone was any the wiser that I’d even been there. So intent were the other gents on their own business, that none of the members of this elite gentlemen’s lounge had noticed me.


Imagine blowing a tuba into a bathtub full of rice pudding and you might come close to simulating the hellish cacophony that ensued when I assumed ‘the position’ and finally released my tenuous hold on the situation. It was a monumental case of heinous anus as the poltergeist inhabiting my nether regions was exorcised, and flew out of me like the malignant ghosts fleeing Indiana Jones’ Lost Ark, accompanied by the sound of a flock of psychotic cockatoos all playing the kazoo. Every other man present in this doorless, toilet-less toilet was startled by all my sound & fury, and turned around as-one to survey the source of this loo-hullabaloo. Judging from their expressions of immediate surprise and delight, I can only imagine that in 1987 finding a westerner straining red-faced in their communal squatter was a first for these fine gentlemen of Shanghai.

Abandoning their Worker’s Dailys they stood up and gathered around me, gesticulating in my direction and having an animated discussion, as I continued bearing-down on my gruelling chores, still trembling like a sick chihuahua. I was aghast when one old guy went around behind me to examine my efforts with what appeared to be great interest, as if he were merely inspecting a broken drain-pipe (as, in a way, he was). I tried shooing him away, to much guffawing and hilarity from the rest of my standing ovation. It was one of the most ghastly embarrassing moments of my life (until 25 years later when paralysed in hospital, and daily supervised trips to the lavatory became my crucible of horrors). As my reactor-core cooled, and my aftershocks echoed sonorously throughout the tin shed and died away, I frantically finished my business to peals of laughter, then scuttled off back the way I’d come, distancing myself from this arena of my humiliation.

Over the next few years of backpacking through out-of-the-way places, I came to learn that most long-term travellers have similar experiences, where one’s own gizzards conspire to rebel against the hapless wanderer at the worst possible moment, and in fact I’d gotten off lightly. At least I’d made it all the way inside what was locally considered a toilet, rather than being caught out in public by an intestinal-highjacking, as had happened to other poor unfortunates I met. It was hearing such horror stories, compounded by my own mortifying experience of this particular day, that taught me to always travel with a packet of IMODIUM, which is a kind of concrete stopper for the colon. Even though using it must be like conducting a laboratory chemical experiment in one’s own innards, I’d chew tablets of the evil stuff as if they were Chiclets when backpacking in certain countries, preferring to freeze-dry my digestive system rather than ever again be Shanghaied.

73 thoughts on “Shanghaied”

  1. Only Pappy Boyington, Nixon and Baker’s thunder box trumpet can go to China! No stranger to the intestinal hijacking myself and a master of “The Move” – run, unbuckle, drop slacks, spin and plant – this is one my favorite Baker stories. Some new pics too! Double bonus! Thanks pal!

  2. Thanks, dear boy, for such an excruciatingly amusing story hilariously told. Such experiences run (the very word, I guess) in the Baker family as, so it seems, in the Stacchi ditto. Your young brother Alex could bear highly amused witness to a comparably clenched dash on my part up stairs (a neat trick in itself) to a loo on the Pincio in Rome in 1996, seconds in front of public shame in the Eternal City. And since before you were born, I’ve needed to become familiar with the location of lavs on every ship I’ve travelled on. I blame change of diet; or perhaps the excitement of it all! Love, Dad & Wen.

    • Yes! I remember you telling me the story of your ‘Roman Adventure’. Such tales are relatively common amongst people I’ve met over the years, even if their surnames are NOT Baker. Nervous travel tummy can be dangerous, hence my IMODIUM addiction in days of yore.

    • Yes, I remember Dad’s clenched powerwalk up the Pincio steps! I also remember another time in a public toilet in Bath- Dad in a cubicle bombing battleships like it’s 1942, very loudly. Me having a wizz and as I’m washing my hands exchanging amused/appalled comments and eye rolling with the other blokes in there witnessing this carnage, safe in the knowledge there’s no possible way I could be linked to what sounded like a xenomorph being born in there. Then it all goes quiet….’Alex? You still there Alex?’….

  3. Devastatingly funny. Living/traveling in foreign cultures takes “bathroom humor” to a new, stratospheric level! Oh the Romanian toilet tales I could share…but I’ll spare.

    Michael Webb

    • Many westerners associate these tales only with countries foreign to them, hence such terms as ‘Delhi belly’ and ‘Montezuma’s revenge’. But people from those places have similar moments of bowel-horror when travelling to our neck of the woods. I think a big part of it is simply the nerves of travel, combined with a drastic change in diet. Anyway, sheer terror at the time is pure comedy after the fact. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Beautifully written James,
    We’ve all had an urge for a purge in foreign countries but this story certainly defines the tension in fine detail.
    Forwarding this to my daughters as the subject is a family fave.

  5. Awesome story James! I have to say, I have had at least one or two similar incidents after a night of drinks and food, wandering home late on the dark streets of Beijing, and I tell you, even though those squat public bathrooms are archaic by our western standards, I was saved from some further possible embarrassing moments! Lucky for me, there was no one in the bathroom to be amused! LOL. And no stall wall either in most of those places!!!

  6. What a great story! Enjoyed reading it while sitting on the throne in my own “reading room”. Ironic? Appropriate? All of the above?

  7. Hilariously written Jamie – and (gulp!) extremely evocative! Brought back memories of my own experience – on a crowded BUS during Chinese New Year travel season. Don’t get me started. MORE PLEASE!

    • A BUS!? Oh, how nightmarish…
      Reminds me of a poor traveller I met (from New Zealand) who had a tale of terror from Lake Titicaca. He and his girlfriend were on a 4-hour boat ride across the lake with about 8-10 local folks, in what was essentially a big dinghy with an outboard motor, IE: no toilet. When his body betrayed him he had no choice but to hang his rear-end over the side of the boat. His own efforts apparently drowned out the sound of the outboard motor… And, after he was done, he still had a few hours of avoiding eye contact with his fellow passengers…

  8. Very entertaining and funny James. I’m based in Shanghai now and while the city is a far cry from 1987 these types of toilets still exist down some dark alleys…..actually your story might explain my own similar experience where upon completion a little old man complimented me on my efforts but said I was a far cry from the foreign white devil of 1987! :)

  9. seriously funny James …you had me in tears as all those memories of 1980’s china came flooding back. Good one !!!

    • Hey Peta, my old CHINA! Glad you got a chuckle out of this yarn but I was NOT laughing at the time, I can tell you that. Seems like my gizzards were often in an uproar in China. About a month after this story here, I met you & Chris in Yangshuo and I’d JUST recovered from a very nasty bout of food poisoning there too, and that one lasted a few days and actually needed a doctor. WHEW! Someday I might write about that road-trip I took with you & Chris into the backwoods of Guangxi province!

  10. Jamie…. The Intestinal Confessional! Well written. How’s one guy get blessed with so many talents? It’s not fair, but, of course, nothing is. I suppose we’d all be better off if we’d simply accept that none of us is the in-charge character we try to project, and that, in reality, each of us is a walking, talking food-processing tube with a low-voltage brain on top. Humiliating, of course. But I prefer subtracting the shame, and transforming the experience (as you’ve obviously done by writing about it) into simply being humbled. For me, a daily reality. There’s a whole book in this, I think.

  11. High-larious! Have been in that situation myself, thankfully only in the US, usually on the Freeway, using my GPS to find the closest anything with a loo! Thanks for sharing Jamie, your storytelling is fantastically funny!!!

  12. Dear James, tales of urinal urgency are strangely a more recent feature of life, thanks to aging plumbing! great read and keep it up! Such stories just can’t be held back! Shanghai must have been amazing at that time; incredible that all has changed in such a short span! Hope all is well, stay safe. Great to see old friends’ comments ( and puns) here.

  13. Well written James, makes me laugh. I am glad we didn’t have moments like yours when we travelled for a week through Burma on jeeps, ferries and trains the year after. Or did we?

  14. Dude, thank you for the laughs. I had to read it aloud to Sally, barely able to finish sentences without cracking up.


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