A trip to a public toilet in Hong Kong or in any Chinese city is always a timeless topic of excitement. Alongside the usual clichéd experiences, from flooded floors to smells, a new problem has emerged. It’s one of geography.
Why are customers at a café or restaurant required to ask at the counter for a toilet key, and then embark on a long march to a loo situated outside the premises, around the street corner, up two floors in a shopping mall, and at the end of a remote corridor that can only be reached after ten minutes with a map? An 80-year-old man suffering from kidney or prostrate problems must surely find the journey quite a challenge—hopefully, he can make it to the disabled stall in time.
Then there’s the matter of the toilet key. It’s a mystery why a large iron plate, the size of a Penguin book, is always dangling from it on a plastic string. You can’t put it in your pocket. You have to carry it in your hands, and thanks to the loud clinking noise, there’s no way you can hide the reason why you are in such a hurry. They know perfectly well that you’re not heading for a lunch appointment with the consul-general of the United States. Criminals in China being taken to the execution grounds for a bullet in the back of the neck are asked to bear a similarly clumsy placard—only they wear it on their chests, and it’s emblazoned with their name and a big red cross to warn off onlookers.
The iron plate is said to prevent theft. But who wants to steal and duplicate a public toilet key? I was told that many reckless customers simply drop the key into the toilet, leave and never come back. So with a large, heavy object tied to it, the toilet cleaner may find it easier to recover even after a few flushes.
The key itself occasionally poses a problem. I visited a café on a commercial building podium last week and wanted to go to the washroom. I asked for the key, which was handed to me swiftly by a happy waiter at the counter. I found the place after a complicated journey, somewhat like Captain Cook crossing the Indian Ocean and eventually landing in Australia. But it was no relief. I couldn’t open the door. There was half of a broken key jammed in the key-hole.
I went back and returned the key to the waiter, and told him politely about my frustration. “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “You can’t open the door with this key. There’s a problem with the key hole on the door knob.”
“Then why on earth did you hand me the key in the first place?” I asked, slightly baffled.
“Because that’s what you asked: ‘May I have the toilet key?’ Of course you may, so I gave it to you,” he said