If there is one thing that changed for China over the past few decades, then it is their immense and rapid urbanisation. There are whole cities with millions if not tens of millions of people that many Westerners have never even heard of. One city that exploded maybe more than any other was Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. It attracted millions of workers over the first decades of the 21st century.
The cartoonist Guy Delisle visited Shenzhen in the course of his work and then drew this graphic novel about his experiences. His visit took place in 1997, so it’s a bit behind the times now. In 1997, Shenzhen had a population of 5.5 million. By 2020 it was close to 20 million. Delisle’s graphic novel opens with an impression of Shenzhen as a dirty, loud, crowded mess. A soulless place where concrete towers were going up all around you.
Delisle’s travel story is mostly one of loneliness and boredom. He’s stuck at his hotel in the middle of Shenzhen and trying to supervise a team of Chinese cartoonists but can hardly communicate with them, and to get out of Shenzhen you need special permits. Travelling around the city or the rest of the country is not made easy, but his Chinese translator sometimes offers up a trip. The story is not much more than a string of observations of things that are strange to him, and strange social situations where he doesn’t understand the behavior of the Chinese around him.
Delisle’s story feels very vivid. He shows enough little details that it is easy to imagine that you are there with him. He doesn’t just focus on the broad strokes of his journey, but chooses little side notes about little things like the crappy water cooker in his room, the nonsense buttons on his air conditioning, the effort to to buy a little kitchen knife, and so on. The little details that you wouldn’t come up with yourself if you hadn’t in fact undertaken the journey. The downside is that the narrative doesn’t flow smoothly. Most of the story feels like a string of notes, some occupying just one or two panels without setting up a proper scene, or just mentioning something trivial without making any point. And it isn’t always clear what impression he wants to convey. In future books he would get better at it.
The novel is much less focused on politics than Pyongyang (2004), because in a story about North Korea politics are impossible to get away from. His North Korean handlers dragged him to exhibitions about the Evil American Capitalists. In Shenzhen he is just mostly left alone, and he’s not really trying his hardest to understand the Chinese around him. He’s not trying to learn the language or see the city from a broader historical perspective. He’s just reacting emotionally as a pretty clueless young Western guy.
Compared to his later work, Shenzhen is rather shallow. For many of his anecdotes I didn’t really understand the point. They felt like Delisle was filling up space. I’ve had more exciting journeys myself. But it is not bad; there’s nothing wrong with it. The art is also a bit sketchy; a bit rough around the edges. For your first Delisle experience I would recommend Pyongyang.
I’m reading Delisle’s “Pyongyang” at the moment and it’s a fascinating book. Thanks for the recommendation!
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You’re welcome, I’m glad you’re enjoying it! I want to pick up more of his work in the future. Next on the list is the Burma Chronicles.
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That’s cool that you want to continue reading his books. I will look forward to your review.
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