Going extra mile turns good intentions into better outcomes

Wang Yong
By taking residents' actual living conditions into consideration, a citywide toilet installation campaign provides more than just convenience.
Wang Yong

Doing good is one thing, doing well is another.

Suppose you want to help someone living in a cramped, rundown apartment to replace their chamber pot with a flush toilet. You’re doing good, especially when you are doing it for free and, in many cases, making life more convenient for an old person living upstairs in an aged building with no lift.

Shanghai has been doing exactly this over recent years to improve the lives of those who have no access to flush toilets. Local official sources say that around 40,000 households saw their portable chamber pots replaced by flush toilets last year. The People’s Daily reported that about 1 million chamber pots were replaced from 1958 to 2018.

The government’s past good deeds were not easily done. In many occasions, a potential beneficiary would oppose it. The devil, indeed, was in the details.

For one thing, quite a few people worried about water leaking from newly installed flush toilets. For another, they worried about noise pollution. Many rooms slated for renovation had squeaking wooden floors that were prone to leaking and far from sound-proof.

It also baffled many residents and renovators alike as to where to install a flush toilet in tiny rooms often dubbed “snail’s shells.”

Shanghai Observer today reported a few cases in point.

For example, a 6.5-square-meter room on Kangding Road E. in Jing'an District was found inhabited by a couple and their two children. The couple thought it would be impossible to install a flush toilet, which required at least 1 square meter. The neighborhood committee did not give up, though. It consulted construction workers and came up with a solution: They would build a hanging cupboard and move the fridge under it. The place originally for the fridge was thus freed to fit a flush toilet.

In another case, an elderly man who also lived on Kangding Road E. had only a bedside corner in which to possibly place a flush toilet. Renovators decided to first build something like a walk-in closet with movable doors and then put the toilet inside. This way, the man could shut the doors on the toilet.

In yet another instance, an elderly woman lived on the third floor in a lane building on Shouning Road and had expected to have a flush toilet for some time. She used to hire someone for 100 yuan (US$14.15) per month to empty her chamber pot, as feeble feet barred her from walking with ease. More often than not the chamber pot was barely cleaned, so she had to wash it again at home. Sometimes the hired person would return the pot only to the second floor, so she had to come down to fetch it. When news came that her neighborhood would install flush toilets, she was the first to apply.

To avert possible noise pollution caused by water flushing, the construction team chose a most difficult and sophisticated way by arranging pipes along the wall flanking public stairs of the building. It was a deliberate detour that obviated a passage through rooms downstairs.

Similar cases abound in which grassroots government staff did well in doing good. The cases reflect a spirit of service that knows no limit – a spirit that believes anything can be done and done well in the interests of the people.

This year the city will continue to make life better for the few remaining people still waiting to substitute a chamber pot for a flush toilet. Past experiences show that public-interest projects need to be understood by the people in the first place. Passion and patience matter.

If renovators gave up hope in the face of some complaints about noise or narrow space, an otherwise good deed would have come to naught. In one case, to dispel worries about water leaking, a construction team went all out to design and build a flush toilet on an elevated cement pedestal and other water-proof materials.

The passion and patience of grassroots staff can be found in areas other than the “toilet revolution.”

The Xinmin Evening News reported yesterday that some hotpot restaurants had vented their cooking smoke into residential buildings and a school. A heavy fine on concerned restaurants would be easy, but local environmental watchdogs did not single-mindedly focus on fines. Instead, they tackled the root cause by ordering a closure of the ventilation outlets facing the school and residential buildings, and a reconstruction of the ventilation system so that purified smoke would be dispersed high in the air.

The grassroots wisdom of passion and patience reminds me of the slogan for World Expo 2010 Shanghai: "Better City, Better Life." Indeed, with passion for our city, we do good; with patience, we do well.

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