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.