In China there is a food delivery app called Eleme, which roughly means “Hungry?” The service is staffed by an army of workers, mostly migrants from rural villages across China, who are distinguished by their bright blue uniforms. They can be seen at all hours across Beijing, motoring at great speed through narrow alleys or crowded highways, bags swinging from their hands.
Their compensation is determined entirely by the speed with which they deliver. This gives them a unique, scrambling gait, as they shift between different states of panic, depending on their proximity to the deadline. It is not uncommon to see the blue form of an Eleme man, humped forward in a full sprint through streets and hallways. They are everywhere.
Once I was wandering lost in one of the many identical high-rises that are littered across Beijing. I was late for a meeting, and had taken to combing the building floor by floor to look for my room. Down a hallway, and then another, I turned to find a long passage stretching out, dotted at intervals of a meter with identical, tiny windows. Above them in the gloom flickered three dozen logos I dimly recognized from the app. Below them, from the windows, stretched many arms waving identical plastic bags, and among them swarmed the blue coats of Eleme men, jostling each other to grab the bags, heft them, and depart. I passed through them unnoticed. Bending to peer through one of the windows, I saw a man in a room just big enough for the wok at which he was working furiously, tossing noodles and green pepper. It was only after I emerged back into bright halls that I realized the whole scene had been conducted in complete silence.
Later that night, as I loitered outside a bar called Temple, I caught a flash of characteristic blue out of the corner of my eye, and then “Bitch! Dumb cunt!” Across the street, two Eleme men were fighting. They broke apart as I watched, one sprinting to the left, the other in hot pursuit. The chaser screamed insults at regular intervals, and the leader remained silent. They met again, wrestled for a moment, broke apart. This continued for a couple minutes, up and down the road, as the runner was caught, beat, and released. Eventually he took to circling a small fence in the road, keeping it between him and the other, who still gave an occasional hoarse shout. They had slowed to a shuffling walk. Both limped. I asked a man near me what they were fighting about, and he said one had woken the other up.
The next day I ordered Eleme. It’s cheap and fast; a miracle of algorithmic efficiency. I feel that such a great network of men, scurrying about on commands from on high, ought to provoke some kind of lofty sentiment. Some graceful image of concert or puppetry. But in the end, for me, there is only disgust.