Sunday, 12 December 2010

Shopping mall toilet at your peril

By far the worst experience of a Hong Kong shopping mall is using the toilet. And the more upmarket the mall, the worse the experience.

The shiniest facilities are done out in sleek black polished marble, bedecked with scented flowers, and spotlit for dramatic impact. (Induces immediate migraine in Grit with dazzling sink blindness.)

There will be another feature waiting for you in an upmarket mall toilet.

The ferocious and impassible lady toilet attendant.

She is there to provide you with your unique and hygienic personalised toilet experience. And you are going to have it whether you want it or not.

She may be a professional male assassin in her spare time, but in her day job she is fiercely dressed in white surgical gown, face mask, plastic gloves, and will be there for you with a bucket containing unknown fluids. (When this ensemble hits the Versace catwalk, I will never use another mall toilet ever, ever again.)

The lady toilet attendant's job is to sanitise the environment for your perfect hygiene. Or, where you foolishly breathe, walk or, heavens above, have a wee.

Really, she puts the fear of god in me. She invariably pursues me about the toilets, watching me like a hawk. If I do something stupid, like momentarily freeze in terror, trying to remember whether I formerly promised my liver to someone and this is the medical staff come to collect it, then she will assist by sternly indicating which cubicle I must visit. I will immediately follow her instructions, because it's a place to hide. Yes, I know it's a temporary respite. I bet if I don't come out within the allotted three minutes she will be on all fours, peering under the door and vigorously poking me out by means of a sterilized scalpel.

If the lady toilet attendant isn't scary enough on the way in, I have the added fear of what she has set the toilet to do, with its pre-set you-had-long-enough flusher sensor. That alone is bad enough, so please let us keep the automatic lid flip, button selection panel, and bottom sprayer safely in Japan.

But here the toilet seat is kept up, even in the ladies. There may be good reason for this. Like, if you leave the toilet seat down, you forget to check for hiding geckos. Trust me, the last experience you want is a terrified mini lizard trapped in a toilet bowl, desperately seeking a place to flee from your descending rear end. I have had one run up my trouser leg and that was bad enough. I accept the seat up position. But woe betide me if, on exiting the cubicle, I leave the seat positioned down!

I am barely out of that cubicle before the lady toilet attendant - who probably has a fearsome inspection employment experience perfect for an application with Ofsted - barges past me, scrutinises the toilet seat position, inspects all surfaces, and immediately begins to spray all tiles, walls and doorhandles in case I have maliciously secreted stray wee, bacterial infection or contagious microbe.

While her back is turned I'd better be quick with the washbasin so I can escape her policing of the hand washing. If I'm not quick enough, I have to face the same procedure all over again. The lady toilet attendant hovers over me and wipes the basin spotless before my hands have left it. I swear that when I manage to make my escape, she identifies which paper towel I discarded in the bin, takes it out, soaks it in bleach, folds it, and returns it to the trash.

I thought I should tell you all this, because if I die suddenly and someone, for some unknown reason, scrutinises my phone camera, they would see that I begun my stay in Hong Kong with a selection of photographs of toilets. It looks a bit obsessive. Maybe they would think I was just a bit creepy and strange, or was stalking the lady toilet attendant in revenge for her stalking me.

Actually, I started photographing toilets because the range of polished stone they use for decorative wall effect is quite interesting. This one at the IFC contains fossils which I thought were bivalves. I had a half-formed idea I could interest the kids in pursuing their project, 'geology of shopping malls'.

I just moved on to photographing the lady toilet attendant because she crept up behind me and sprayed the wall, which I had contaminated by looking.