This is one of Guy Delisle’s earliest Travelogues, with a trip to Shenzhen, China to oversee the completion of a children’s cartoon in 1997. Delisle spent a three month period in China, as an outsider who doesn’t speak the language and struggles to integrate into this new world.
As ever, Delisle does not try to tell an epic story. He gives you an image of what day to day life is like for someone living in another environment. He has a talent for observing the banal and everyday, and turning it into something humorous. The door man at his hotel greets him with a random English phrase every time he opens the door for him. The attendant on his floor runs to push the button for the lift for him, every time he leaves his room. She stands furiously hitting the button, until the lift arrives, while he casually waits behind her. These incidents seem bizarre, but only when viewed from the perspective of an outsider.
There are observations on the bigger issues though, such as the freedom the locals enjoy, or lack of it. These insights almost slip through the seams, and are just part of the story like any other. There’s an art teacher who hasn’t seen a colour image of any of Rembrant’s work, or the ‘Small world’ theme park, that gives the skewed view of the outside world the citizens cannot visit. The book does give a depiction of what life is like in China, or as much as he is allowed to see. While his trip isn’t as controlled or orchestrated as his trip to North Korea was, he can never see or feel what it is like to be born there.
His day to day chore is to try to control a studio of Chinese animators. They are largely intent on drawing all the characters cross eyed, and don’t see to understand the basics of animation, so he has a battle on his hands, and he is not loved for the amount of work he rejects. He meets his predecessor for a hand over before he leaves, and he seems to be exasperated by their output!
One of the most fascinating things is how difficult it is to get by in a country where you don’t speak the local language and no one speaks your language. Every meal or basic interaction is a battle and he struggles to get by on sign language and using pictures. He has a translator at work and meets a couple of fellow travellers, or people working in Shenzhen, but basically his life seems to be work and then long nights in his hotel room, with one day slowly blending into the next.
The artwork of this book is black and white pencil and ink drawings. The characters are quite stylized but there are a number of depictions of the city and buildings that are well crafted and show his skill as an artist and also his interest in the architecture of this new landscape. His style grows on you, and it easily depicts emotions and carries the story well.
While this is not Delisle’s best work (Jersulaem: Chronicles of the holy city from 2012 is the obvious starting point), it is still an interesting insight into life in China and also into the early work of Delisle. This was his first large collection that was published, so it is something of a starting point. Delisle is an interesting figure creating a new genre in comic books and is a must read for any serious comic fan.
This book was published its original form in 2000 but later translated in English in 2006.
Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China by Guy Delisle – Published by Jonathan Cape.