Hidden Hong Kong: A History of Hong Kong's Public Toilets (2023)

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VonGabriella LynnJuly 21, 2022| Last updated on December 16, 2022

Header image courtesy ofPMQ Design Extraand Kit Chan

Everyone in Hong Kong knows that finding a public toilet is relatively easy.Shopping centersand most MTR stations are equipped with restrooms, plus there is always McDonald's to rely on. And when they're out of range, like belowa hike on a picturesque remote island, you can go to one of them840 publicly operated public toilets.

But these are modern times. Back then, it was common for Hong Kongers to do their business on the side streets. Public toilets did not appear until the mid-19th century and only became widespread much later. If you need a quick read for your next visit to the toilet, here is a brief history of Hong Kong's public toilets. But first we need to know how the Chinese handled their numbers one and two at home.

Hidden Hong Kong: A History of Hong Kong's Public Toilets (1)

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A woman carries buckets of night soil in Fukien Province, 1871. Photo: John Thomson (via Wellcome Collection)

Hygiene in pre-colonial Hong Kong

Before Hong Kong became a British colony, Hong Kong - like the rest of China - built outhouses with a six-foot hole in the ground where human excrement was regularly treated with lime (calcium hydroxide) to kill bacteria and prevent odors. When spring is around the corner or the hole is almost full, the accumulated waste is collected and used to fertilize the crops. This was particularly important as it allowed human waste to be turned into a business; People could sell it to farmers in rural areas as a natural fertilizer.

In houses without space for outbuildings or separate bathrooms, the "horse bucket" (馬桶; maa5 tung2) is used instead. Every household had its own wooden bucket that had to be emptied and cleaned daily - hence the term "dispose of bedside floors" (倒夜香; dou2 je6 hoeng1). People called the men and women whose job it is to collect night soil "night soil man" (夜香郎; je6 hoeng1 long4) and "dump poop lady" (倒屎婆; dou2 si2 po4).

Since dry toilets and horse buckets were widespread, there were probably no proper drains. After the British occupied Hong Kong Island in 1841,Several colonial surgeons expressed concernsabout the unsanitary living conditions in the city of Victoria (now the Central and Western District) and warned that an outbreak could occur. They urged authorities to introduce drainage and sewage systems, as well as better paving and cleaning.

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Soldiers clean destroyed buildings ravaged by the plague. Photo: Wellcome Images (via Wikimedia Commons)

The bubonic plague outbreak

Unfortunately, the colonial government only managed to solve the problem when it was too late. Sure, the concept of building public latrines and bathhouses was often discussed, and the former was implemented on a small scale (we'll get to that later), but the overall cost, scarcity of land, and competition with private facilities hampered this. any further action.

In 1881, British engineer Sir Osbert Chadwick was commissioned to inspect the Tai Ping Shan district, particularly because Sheung Wan was extremely overcrowded and unsanitary at the time.Report DetailsRegarding housing conditions and housing and street drainage systems, Chadwick echoed the earlier colonial surgeons and recommended a number of changes, but his advice fell on deaf ears and no public toilets were installed.

Thirteen years later, in 1894, their predictions came true; a burst ofbyldepestMore than 2,500 people died that year and the city was plagued for another three decades. Because the plague was particularly bad in Tai Ping Shan District, where it originated, the government demolished and rebuilt buildings in the area. It was founded in 1904first permanent public bathhouse at Pound Lane,which could be used free of charge by both men and women, and a public toilet at the corner of Tank Lane and Bridges Street.

In subsequent years, based on Chadwick's proposals, the government also introduced separate sewage and stormwater drainage systems across the city. Eventually, changes came, but they cost thousands of lives.

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Connaught Road in the 1920s. The small stone structure is a toilet. Photo: Hong Kong Museum of History (via Wikimedia Commons)

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The only underground men's toilet in operation today, also known as the "Triangular Public Toilet". Photographed by Kit Chan. Photo: PMQ Design Extra

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The entrance to the closed underground women's toilet on Aberdeen Street and Staunton Street. Photo: JUMBAIKTANGM LONA (via Wikimedia Commons)

Go to the toilet downstairs

As in Dr. Chong Yuk-siks tellsToilet as a business for the Chinese community in colonial Hong KongIn the mid-19th century, public latrines operated by Chinese landowners dominated the scene. They profited by selling night soil to mulberry farmers in Shunde to support the booming silk business, and some also charged fees for toilet access. Chong suggested that the government should later assume responsibility for public toilets, not because of bubonic plague but because landowners had ceased operations when the silk business declined in the 1930s.

When the British government finally decided to take matters into their own hands, things went downhill (literally). There were a handful of these in the early 20th centuryunderground toiletson Hong Kong Island, serving the Chinese working class. The stench was unimaginable due to the lack of sewage pipes and the faeces had to be removed manually.

If you've ever crossed the intersection of Wellington Street and Queen's Road Central today, you might have seen a stairway leading to the last working underground toilet, separated by metal railings. The rest is all abandoned or filled upone on Aberdeen Street- the only one with a ladies toilet - listed as a Category II listed building.

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The Japanese army crosses the border between Hong Kong and China in 1941. Photo: Mainichi Newspaper, Japan (via Wikimedia Commons)

Public toilets before and after World War II

The government made various attempts to keep the streets clean. According to Hong Kong historian and author Ng Ho, people were prevented from defecating on the street as early as 1866. However, the number of public latrines - state or private - was simply not enough. In difficult situations, people went to back alleys and relieved themselves there, which earned the narrow passages the nickname "excrement alleys" (屙屎巷; o1 si2 hong6).

In December 1940, authorities attempted to introduce flush toilets to local Hong Kongers and ordered that all restaurants and eateries have flush toilets availableCha Chaan TengsThey should install them no later than June 1941. The owners thought this was nonsense and approached the then governor of Hong Kong, arguing that there were not enough municipal sewers to support the system.

The good news is that the governor listened and immediately initiated the construction of more sewers, but the bad news is that World War II happened. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Hong Kong and it practically ceased to existNo infrastructural advances. As the drainage system was left unattended, sanitation problems and pollution increased. In addition, the population increased dramatically in the few years after the war.

A column in the New Life Evening Post of April 23, 1946 reported that the government had again banned people from urinating and defecating in the streets, but because nobody wanted to use the shabby public toilets, they imposed one $250 fine to punish violators. After being criticized for not treating the sewage before it was discharged into the sea, the government built the first screening plant in 1956. New sanitation measures were subsequently implemented, including the conversion of the public bathhouse at Pound Lane into a sloping public toilet house in 1961.

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Pound Lane public toilet before the $8 million 2021 renovation. Photo: Another Believer (via Wikimedia Commons)

Improving sanitation in Hong Kong

From then on, measures to improve sanitation and hygiene were actively implemented throughout Hong Kong. Related to "White Paper: Pollution in Hong Kong - Time for ActionIn the summary published in 1989, the authorities drew up wastewater master plans (SMP), which gradually provided for the construction of further sewage treatment plants and pumping stations. They aspired to itimprove the condition of public toilets, from facility renovations to converting flush toilets to squat toilets.

When the Department of Food and Environmental Hygiene was established in 2000, managing public toilets was also one of its responsibilities. It was searchedChange the entire aqua privacy- Village-style dry toilets with a no-flush system, the kind most commonly found in the New Territories - to flush toilets, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the 10-year project.

But our journey to modern sanitation doesn't end there - the Hong Kong government continues to invest in new toilets and refurbish old ones. From dirt roads to multi-million dollar toilets, our city's public toilets have truly come a long way. Thank God!

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Hang Mei Tsuen public toilet in Yuen Long. Photo: Chong Fat (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Aberdeen Promenade public toilet (currently closed). Photo: Ceeseven (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Tin Hau Road public toilet in 2011 before renovation. Photo: Wright (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Shek Wu Hui's public toilet in Sheung Shui. Photo: Wright (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Tai Po Tsai Lower Village public toilet converted from a water house. Photo: Wrightbus (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Gabriella Lynn


A laid back granny at heart, Gabriella loves to crochet, bake and play solitaire while listening to her 78 hour Spotify playlist. She enjoys all the simple things in life but also tends to go crazy once or twice (or thrice).


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