Recently, I traveled to Shanghai, China. It's my third visit in a year. I have yet to wrap my head around it. The city is New York City on steroids, some 23+ million people occupying a small slice of what used to be known as the Whore of the Orient. It is "Blade Runner" in the morning, death-defying to cross its whizzing intersections, an insane mash-up of surreal skyscrapers, freshly-dead meat hanging from hooks over caldrons of living crustraceans, and Louis Vuitton belts paired with Hello Kitty t-shirts worn by girls with black bangs holding over-sized mobile phones as they teeter along on plastic platforms.
So, I suppose it was no surprise that it was in a thin alley that I found a restaurant with a theme, and the theme was shit. At first, I thought the gold urinals on the wall were something Warholian. Then I noticed the giant toilet mounted to another wall. Finally, I spotted the display by the door, which you see above: a woman's legs in a steaming tub under a serving platter upon which was waiting a perfect turd on a plate.
This was Modern Toilet. On the company's website, under "Toilet Story," the origin was explained: "We are a group of 'muckrakers' following our dreams."
It all started when one of us was reading the manga, Dr. Slump on the toilet – and the rest is history. In the beginning, we mainly sold ice cream – a big pile of chocolate ice cream sold in containers shaped like a squat toilet.
I was reminded of a line from Paul Auster's City of Glass:
As it happened, he was sitting on the toilet, in the act of expelling a turd, when the telephone rang.
Modern Toilet began in Taiwan. Now, there are over a dozen Modern Toilets, in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan, among other places.
Upstairs, I took a seat at a table. My seat was a toilet. The table had a glass top. Under it, there was a bowl. In the bowl, there was a plastic swirly turd. The place mats were decorated with smiling turds.
Originally, Modern Toilet was devoted to ice cream. Today, it serves all kinds of foods. Wanting to stick with the theme, I ordered two sundaes. The first sundae was a pile of brown balls that looked like shit. It was served in a pink bowl that was shaped like a toilet. The second sundae was a large swirl of chocolate that looked like a turd and was served in a black dish that looked like a toilet. The chocolate balls had a creamy chocolate filling. The chocolate turd came with chocolate flakes.
In theory, children may be more interested in Modern Toilet than adults. About 50% of the people in the packed place were parents with small children. Children, after all, have a different relationship to going to the bathroom than adults. For kids, bowel movements are new, their first act of creation, an event celebrated by a fawning parent who perhaps proffers a gold star or some such commendation.
I cannot imagine Modern Toilet expanding to America. Our country is a church to shame: We hide what we do not understand. In the U.S., the human body is a secret horror: a mysterious, unknowable territory to which the head is unfortunately attached. Going to the bathroom is done on porcelain thrones to counterbalance the sad truth shitting exposes, that we are lumps of sentient meat that spend our days filling one hole and excreting out the other. Work, which consumes so much of our time, exists for little reason other than to support our daily habit: eating, shitting, sleeping.
In Shanghai, at least, things are different. It is not unusual to see small children going to the bathroom in public spaces. For example, I was on the Bund on a busy Saturday. A just-married couple, as they do, was having their photographs taken with the dramatic skyline of Pudong as a backdrop. The groom was Chinese and wearing black pants and a scarlet jacket. The bride was blonde (American, I think) and wearing a scarlet wedding dress with a long train that had cutouts like paper. The photographer worked with a crew to take the shots. At one point, the photographer crouched to take several photos. A small boy of maybe two squatted down a few feet from the photographer. A crowd had gathered by then. The little boy, who wore cutout pants that many small children do in China, squatted and peed on the walkway. His mother stood nearby, smiling and snapping a photo of her son as he let forth his stream.
I had no trouble eating the desserts that looked like shit at the toilet-themed restaurant. It wasn't a big deal to me. The food was quite tasty. The ambiance was amusing. Of course, I suppose it is a matter of personal taste.