Urgent need for relief
Wang Jiena, in her 20s, has been waiting 10 minutes outside a public toilet near Xintiandi. She is becoming nervous and anxious but there are still four people in front of her.
Wang is not the only one of her gender to experience the embarrassment of standing for long periods of time in public toilet queues. The lack of adequate public toilet facilities for women has long been an annoyance, especially in shopping areas or the entertainment centres downtown.
In the Shanghai New World Department Store, there are only eight toilet cubicles for women located on the second floor. "The queue stretches out into the shopping area down the entire length of the corridor during holidays or weekends," said one of the toilet cleaners.
Century Park in Pudong has the same problem. The toilets for men sometimes have to be used by women in the holidays.
Today, the government looks after 2,085 public toilets in Shanghai, half of which are located downtown. There are 1,740 toilets in public places such as supermarkets and entertainment centres.
The network of public toilets in Shanghai has been designed to ensure there is a toilet for every 300 square metres.
"The quality of the toilets has met the needs of the public in Shanghai. We have paid attention and improved the service," said Sun Zhixing, director of the Equipment and Facility Management Department.
So why are the women's toilets always so crowded?
"The ratio of toilets for men and women is unbalanced. At present the number of toilet cubicles for women is equal to that for men," Sun said. "But the number of toilet cubicles for women should be 30 per cent more than the number for men."
Sun said that toilet construction failed to take into account some of the factors that meant there should be more women's toilets than men's.
The city has started an investigation into the problem around the city and plans to increase the number of toilets for women next year.
There was a time when Shanghai was censured by travellers from both home and abroad for a lack of facilities for visitors. In past decades it sometimes required a long search before a tourist could find an urgently needed washroom.
But today that embarrassing situation is beginning to re-appear.
Over the past decade, the Shanghai Municipal Government has invested some 200 million yuan (US$24 million) in a large-scale renovation and reconstruction programme of public toilets in the city.
An official from the Shanghai City Appearance & Environmental Sanitation Bureau (SCAESB) revealed recently that Shanghai was making every endeavour to provide a public toilet every 150 metres in the downtown area.
It is also expected that Shanghai will build a number of luxury toilets in the city's up-market areas. And more measures will be taken, such as opening the toilets in eateries to the public and using more portable toilets to meet increased demand in holiday or festival periods.
But the overall situation is far from being solved.
The unsanitary condition of public toilets has also been criticized by residents.
Most of the complaints are that the services provided in some low-end toilets do not match the fees charged.
The highest rate in an ordinary public toilet is 0.5 yuan (US$0.06) while the fee for a better-equipped one is no more than 1 yuan (US$ 0.12).
"The smell in some public toilets nearly makes me dizzy and the scene is horrible with excrement around the toilet and the floor flooded with urine," said Zhang Liping, a Shanghai local.
More than half of the complaints were about the poor hygiene in public toilets.
The sanitary conditions in the free public toilets and in rural toilets were even worse. Free public toilets lack the funds to employ a full-time cleaner and because they are free, they are busier.
The standard of public washrooms in China is below that of Indonesia and Thailand. Washrooms in rural areas are divided into four levels, and China only makes it to the third.
In rural areas, toilets cannot be cleaned after use because there is no sewerage system.
The waste has to be exposed in the open air, leading to pollution of the soil and water in the neighbouring area.
But some things are going to be changed. Water-free urinal systems have been introduced into public toilets in Luwan, Huangpu and Hongkou districts.
The system will end the water flush and also eliminate the smell of urine.
"The new kind of urinal system is being tested now. We will decide whether to apply it in a large-scale way later this year," Sun said.
But it will be harder to improve conditions in rural areas where locals cannot afford to build a better-equipped toilet.
"We will help them to build large movable toilets, each costing less than 200,000 yuan (US$24,000) which can be more clean and environmentally friendly," Sun said.
"We are making efforts to increase the number of toilets and improve the service with the aim of making at least 85 per cent of our citizens satisfied with the public toilets."