Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Shenzhen by Guy Delisle

Delisle is also the author of Pyongyang, and he's got a book on Burma coming up this fall -- comics is now a big enough world that it has a niche for "cartoonist who travels to oppressive Asian countries and then does a book about his experiences." (I'm not sure if that's a good thing, and I hope Delisle does expand his repertoire.)

Shenzhen was published in 2006, but it depicts a trip to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in December of 1997 -- so I think that this trip took place before the Pyongyang trip, but was turned into comics later.

(One thing Delisle doesn't mention, oddly, is that he was in the close vicinity of Hong Kong -- and made at least one trip there -- less than six months after the handover to China in the summer of 1997. I would have thought that time would have led to a lot of discussion about the future of China, Hong Kong, and the world in general.)

When Delisle went to Shenzhen, it was as an animation supervisor for a French TV company -- he stayed for three months to oversee the production of a TV series there. (From what he shows, it was mostly his job to reject really bad drawings and try to get the finished product up to minimum quality.) The Shenzhen trip was his second extended stay in China; he'd also been in Nanjing for similar work earlier. But Shenzhen doesn't closely compare the two experiences, or mention the Nanjing trip again after the first few pages.

Shenzhen isn't as immediately engaging or interesting as Pyongyang was, mostly because of external circumstances. In Shenzhen, Delisle didn't link up with an expatriate community, was working with large numbers of people who spoke essentially no English or French, and was in an altogether blander and more Westernized city. Pyongyang is a unique place, filled with bizarre and unlikely things, so any provincial city would be less interesting -- but Shezhen feels bland even for a minor city. Delisle depicts some mildly totalitarian moments, such as the extreme security surrounding Hong Kong, but China comes across as just another country, full of people working hard to get ahead, and Shenzhen as the Chinese equivalent of a more vertical Silicon Valley: the place where high-achievers go to spend all of their time working. The Chinese people also befuddle Delisle, as they have generations of foreigners before him: they don't react as he expects, and don't (or can't) explain how their viewpoints differ from his. He doesn't fall into the old "wily Oriental" stereotype, but he clearly didn't connect with the Chinese people he met as he did with North Koreans.

What's most memorable about Shenzhen are the moments Delisle spends alone, exploring and thinking about China: he comments on the relentless dirt and grime and has an animator's eye for telling details and the way things move. Shenzhen is a quieter, less exciting book than Pyongyang was, with fewer obvious opportunities for Delisle to shine. Shenzhen is inwardly focused: these are the things Delisle learned and thought while he was in China, rather than what he saw or did. It's not Pyongyang, but it's a fine book itself.

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