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South Korean city invests in lavish loos
June 14, 2002 - By Barbara Demick; Los Angeles Times SUWON, South Korea — As the tourists crowd in for a better look, Lee Pil Ung opens one of the stalls of the ladies' room and, speaking through a hand-held microphone, extols the virtues of the toilet.

He demonstrates the plastic wrap that revolves to supply a fresh toilet-seat cover for every user. Then, closing the door to the stall, he points to the loudspeakers piping in chamber music and to a rack of reading material that this city supplies in its public restrooms.

"This is not just a toilet," says Lee, a volunteer tour guide who works for the city. "This is a space for culture, a space for music."

When South Korea was selected in 1996 to co-host soccer's 2002 World Cup with Japan, government officials began discussing what needed to be done to improve the infrastructure. At one planning session, one official embarrassed Suwon's mayor by asking if he had ever dared to step inside the public toilet in the park downtown.

The next day, the mayor, Shim Jae Duck, visited the park restroom. He was so horrified by its squalid condition that he declared a war on filthy toilets.

The result was a $4 million toilet-improvement campaign that has succeeded beyond anybody's wildest imagination. The public toilets have become Suwon's claim to fame, although the city (population: 1 million) on the outskirts of Seoul also boasts an 18th-century fortress and the best barbecue ribs in the South, and is one of 10 World Cup cities in the country.

Suwon might be the only city in the world (if not, certainly one of the few) that runs guided tours of its loos and has huge advertisements on its buses touting the toilets. ("Enjoy the World Heritage Fortress and Beautiful Restroom Tour," reads the blurb on the green-and-white tour buses.)

The city also publishes a map and special guide to its toilets — which even have their own names. "The theme for this toilet complex is the harmonious joining of nature and mankind," reads the description for a restroom called the Firefly, a name picked because, according to city officials, fireflies live only in clean environments.

The newest restrooms, not surprisingly, are in domes that look like giant soccer balls on the grounds of the World Cup stadium. But toilets in the stadium itself and other busy spots like the transit station are functional rather than luxurious.

"I had heard there were beautiful toilets in Suwon, but I didn't believe it until I saw it with my own eyes," said Chu Ho, a 17-year-old South Korean tourist who was photographing the soccer-ball toilets for a high-school project over the weekend.

In the finest tradition of vernacular architecture, others are shaped like castles, towers and mountains, and one looks like traditional Korean pottery. Huge windows above some urinals offer panoramic views of the city. The complexes boast accoutrements rarely seen in public restrooms — bidets and child potties, among them — and nice touches such as music, skylights and art on the walls.

The undisputed star and recipient of the Grand Prize at the annual beautiful toilet inspection is Banditbuli toilet — situated near a reservoir on the scenic hilly outskirts of the city and named after the fireflies that inhabit the area.

The front of the urinals are made of glass so that men can enjoy nature while answering its call.

American visitors during last week's match between the U.S. team and Portugal seemed impressed.

"It's quite different," said Vickie Knippel, of Shelbyville, Tenn.

"Maybe it's a little overdone for a bathroom," she said, laughing. "But it's the type of place you could sit in with a cup of coffee and magazine."

Some special features might be unfamiliar to Western tourists, such as the "etiquette bell" — when pressed, it makes a sound like running water to cover up any embarrassing sounds emanating from the stall.

Almost all of Suwon's bathrooms have wheelchair-accessible toilets, which used to be a rarity in South Korea.

In fact, until recently, public toilets were a rarity. The few that existed were little more than porcelain troughs in the ground for squatting, and they were notoriously foul-smelling. The very idea that a toilet could be something to be proud of was a novelty. The lowly position occupied by the toilet in Korean culture was typified by a popular saying: Toilets are like mothers-in-law — the farther from home, the better.

It wasn't merely the coming of the World Cup games but the co-hosting arrangement with Japan that inspired Koreans to invest in their toilets. They worried that their infrastructure would look especially shabby next to that of their larger, richer neighbor.

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