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The Last of the Really Great Idlers


Totally Awesome Picture of the Week 60


See that mark? That carefully printed red symbol on the far right that looks similar to the tattoos American teenagers like to have injected permanently into their skin? Unlike those, this is not a sign of innocence. This is the chai, indicating the approach of doom. The mark of death for these solid single family structures. Last week every building on the block behind our apartment building was chaied and on both entrances to the alley red banners were strung informing people that “the citizens are the image of the city and the city is the spirit of the people.” Following the chaiing, the dull gray walls have become increasingly bright as they have been further smothered in neon moving company advertisements.

Though these structures can be replaced, the land they sit on is a well known and important breeding and feeding ground for many endangered classes of indigenous homosapiens. These “characters,” as they are known to anthropologists, depend greatly on their shared bathrooms, broken windows and no plumbings. Many professionals familiar with the situation fear that any change of environment will irreversibly damage the population.

So far, life for our precious neighbors continues as usual: the Butcher awakens at 7, sets out his plywood table, lights his cigarette, places it carefully between his lips, takes his cleaver in hand and hacks apart his pig of the day. The Vegetable Man drags out his cartons of tomatoes, potatoes, greens and ginger, unfolds his chair and reclines, waiting for business. The Tofu Guy sports his bright green rain boots, 80’s era ski jacket and dull pink visor beanie; yelling insults at the Butcher he pushes the dough-ish white squares of his trade from the near corner. And, down on the far end, the Malatang restaurants sort their ingredients and prepare their broths. The children chase and yell under the watchful eyes of their grandparents who joke and bargain with passing street vendors.

As calm as everyone seems, tensions are high. Arguments have increased; instead of weekly screaming fights we now hear and see them daily. The Butcher’s table stays set up well past his usual noon closing time, the last few nights the meat sat out until sundown, and Vegetable Man has actually been getting up to serve customers during his normal mid-day, three hour rest.

Though these changes may seem insignificant, they are not. In fact, from a scientific standpoint, these minor alterations in habits may indicate larger, more severe and permanent transformations of lifestyle. In other words, the customary behavior of these beautiful specimens is in jeopardy. Who is to say their traditions will be strong enough to survive this forced evolution? Where will they set up their card table with hot pot and baijiu? How will they concurrently spit, eat, drink and hawk their goods in an apartment building? Where will the babies pee?

No, this will never do. Their habitat must become a nature or un-nature reserve. Or a Unesco World Heritage site. But who will save these brilliant shirkers? Certainly not themselves and, as objective scientists, we cannot intervene in good conscience. Perhaps these characters, like so many before them, are fated to be destroyed in the throes of heroism, sacrificed for the spirit of this ancient city.

2 Responses to “The Last of the Really Great Idlers”

  1. justrecently says:

    It isn’t chai, it’s zhe, uneducated cantopopper.

  2. Editors says:

    Chai1 as in chaifangzi (demolish a house) not zhe. Sorry if we offended you but we’re not entirely uneducated. Maybe your vision was just clouded by your arrogance.

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