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Beijing Scoops the Last Ladles of Nightsoil

By Andrew Browne, Reuters, Saturday 23 December 2000 9:10 PM ET

BEIJING (Reuters) - Ending a century-old tradition, nightsoil collectors have cleared the last lavatory in Beijing by hand, another milestone in what has been dubbed the toilet revolution sweeping China.

Armed with long-handled ladles and wooden barrels, six collectors on Saturday paid their final early morning call on two courtyard homes on one of Beijing's famous hutong'' alleyways.

The squat-style draught lavatories—pits that can accommodate only one user at a time—were once common in the Chinese capital.

But modern public conveniences with flush toilets have made them obsolete.

Not that nightsoil collectors are now out of a job altogether.

Much of the sewage from public toilets, as well as residential blocks and tourist hotels, still drops into septic tanks that are cleared by nightsoil trucks with long nozzles attached to suction pumps.

The small green trucks are a familiar sight darting about the streets of Beijing on their way to the suburbs, where their human waste is spread on cabbage patches.

Still, the business of scooping up nightsoil by hand is an anachronism in a fast developing city vying for the right to host the 2008 Olympics.

And a large group of Chinese news photographers was on hand to capture the final ladles dipped into the pit by Han Changshun, 43, at house 57 on Neiwubu Street. Six ladles filled the barrel, which Han then heaved into the alleyway and poured into a hand-pulled cart.

Not A Decent Job

What the official Xinhua news agency called an indescribable history had come to an end.

The manual collecting and carrying of human waste, said Xinhua is now in disharmony with Beijing's modern image.

Han, who inherited the job from his father, was quoted by Xinhua as saying: I used to carry 40 to 50 barrels of waste and have already been used to the coldness of winter and stinking smell of summer.

It is not a decent job, said Han, who was reluctant at first to give reporters his first name.

The job did not always carry such a stigma.

During the early years of Communist China, nightsoil collectors were celebrated as model workers. The late Chairman Mao Zedong cultivated one or two of them as friends. And a statue of a particularly esteemed collector was erected near Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The first human collectors in 1900 were refugees from internal calamities who came to Beijing desperate for a job, Xinhua said.

The six manual collectors made redundant on Saturday will take up new positions as night-shift workers aboard the city's fleet of suction trucks.

And the last barrels crafted from fir will be housed in a city museum.