Dr. David Shevin photograph

Sweet Dreams are Made of This

April 20, 2001

Oh, this one is, uh, heck, it's priceless. The other week, our local paper carried an Associated Press story on the front page, datelined Hong Kong. Here are the opening paragraphs:

"Inspired by Vladimir Lenin's vision of the ultimate in capitalist waste, a jeweler has built two solid gold toilets in a bathroom gilded with 24-carat gold and encrusted with gems.

"Lam Sai-wing says he has dreamed since his youth in China about having enough wealth to build toilets of gold - which Lenin in 1921 said would serve as a useful reminder of the waste of capitalist warfare."

I was a funny kid myself, but my boyish dreams were to station myself at the bottom of Cobb's Hill, in the Davey Crockett hat that Aunt Anna had fashioned for me. Mom and dad said we couldn't afford the store version of the hat. Resourceful Anna obtained an old foxfur at a Hadassah rummage sale, replete with amber glass eyes, and stitched it around a baseball cap. The tail hung down just so. I would carry a flintlock and defend the whole Shepard Street neighborhood from the marauding Indians on the far and uncivilized side of the pond.

Who knows what those bad Indians were up to? Probably something un-Western and inscrutable, like smelting down and purifying gold for toilets. I would dream about beautiful places, sometimes. One dream followed a specific object lesson: respect for elders. We had three generations living in the house, and being obliging to the grandparents' generation was a tip-top priority. If age garnered respect, then surely the greatest and most cherished position to be in would be to out-age everybody else. I would dream of the celebrity that came my way as the oldest man in the world, where my word was sought far and wide. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner must have been raised among parallel values.

Whose dreams are not unusual? Still, I can not help but be awed by the vision of a youthful Lam Sai-Wing, who would rub his adolescent eyes, and greet his parents with the red-sleepy face of awakening from his nap. His parents would ask whether he had a good rest, and he would tell them, honestly and forthrightly: "Oh, honored parents. I had the beautiful dream again. It was the vision of the toilets of gold, which Lenin taught would always be a reminder of capitalism's brutal excesses." "How wonderful," his excited parents would respond. "The ever victorious and iron-willed Chairman Mao would be pleased."

Lam Sai-Wing emigrated from Mainland China to Hong Kong to run a successful jewelry business, and there are strict rules for viewing the two gold commodes. The loss leader to draw publicity is a free tour, for which viewers must remove their shoes in order to avoid gold tiles. Those who wish both privacy and use of the facilities must purchase $138 in jewelry for the privilege. Those of you who thought the dime pay toilet was expensive need not apply. These objets d'art are complimented walkway of gold bars and a ceiling "decorated with ruby, sapphire, emerald and amber." As the artist rhapsodizes, the masterworks are "a combination of my thoughts and ideals."

I read the story to my older brother, who shared my fascination with the endeavor. "Is there a special diet before you rent the use? Rose petals for a week?" he asked. Others do not share our fascination. Again, the Associated Press: "'It's a novelty, but I wouldn't have a toilet like that even if I had the money,' said one visitor to the 3D-Gold shop who only gave her surname, Cheung."

Early on in Kapital, Karl Marx acknowledged the inherent quality of gold both as "natural money" and for its use value to stop teeth and to serve as a raw material for luxury items. He cautioned, however, that the use of such a commode-ity easily becomes reflexive. Here, we have a shining employment of the most reflexive use for the substance imaginable, to basket our most involuntary bodily functions. This is the substance that dreams are made of.

Lam Sai-Wing's dreams, anyway.

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