Hong Kong’s low birth rate blamed on women’s “sexual problems”

More babies needed. Image: Getty.

In a recent study, Bloomberg found that Hong Kong will be the world’s most crowded city by 2025. So far, so unsurprising – the city-state is an island, so a bigger population will mean a denser one. Acually, though, the study also found that the area’s population will increase far less rapidly in the coming decades than the swelling cities of South America or Saudi Arabia.

In fact, while the population is still expected to go up thanks to high life expectancies, Hong Kong’s birth rate is dismal. Since 1960, according to figures from the World Bank, it’s fallen from around 5 per women to just 1.3. That's a more rapid decline even than that seen in mainland China, where the "one child policy" has been in place since 1979 (though it has recently been relaxed).

Low birth rates and long life expectancies are, unsurprisingly, leading to an aging population . By 2030, around a quarter of the city’s population may well be over 65.

So what gives? One explanation is that Hong Kong is a city, and people in cities tend to have less children than people in rural areas: space is at a premium, and you don’t need children to help out on the farm. In Shanghai, for example, there’s only around 0.9 births per women, compared to a China-wide average of 1.7. 

However, the Hong Kong Family Planning Association has come forward with a slightly different explanation. It’s all the women’s fault.

The association carried out a study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine earlier this year, which surveyed 2,146 21-40 year old women at birth control clinics and pre-pregnancy check-ups. It concluded that low levels of intimacy and sexual activity among women, plus something vaguely referred to as “sexual problems”, are to blame for the city-state’s falling birth rate. And before you ask, no – they didn’t carry out an equivalent study on men.

To solve the problem, Dr Lue So, the association’s senior doctor, has advised couples to “take turns to initiate coitus” and “have coitus two to three times a week and enjoy every moment”. Ah, the romance of spontaneity.

Not everyone is happy with this argument, and a recent Shanghaiist piece notes that blaming the birth rate on “lady problems” may be a little reductive: 

“It seems like the association's opinion of Hong Kong's low birth rate is more likely a result of the societal gender expectations that at best make the study biased and at worst may subconsciously affect these women's physical desires.”

The article also points out that “frequency of coitus” (as Dr Lue So would put it) doesn’t necessary correlate with the number of births – especially as many of the women surveyed were found through family planning clinics, more often associated with contraception than conception.

Which raises the possibility that maybe people just don’t want to have children. Time to invest in some nursing homes. 


What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.

“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.