Shenzhen by Guy Delisle

1000163Nonfiction — print. Translated from the French by Helge Dascher. Drawn and Quarterly, 2006. Originally published 2000. 148 pgs. Library copy.

Once again, Delisle is hired by an animation company to oversee the animation office outsourced to an Asian country. This time, he spends a few months living in an urban city in southern China located near Hong Kong but sealed off from the rest of the country by electric fences and armed guards. Such conditions were unknown to me before picking up this book and likely are indicative of how the book was first published fourteen years ago.

Much of the book focuses on the sense of isolation such conditions engender in both visitors and residents of the city. Delisle tries to draw out a connection to Dante’s descent to hell presenting Shenzhen’s economic zone as the second wrung from haven. The city provides a level of economic prosperity not found in the countryside, but there are still aspects Delisle views as dirty and backwards (public open pit toilets, for example) and he plans multiple “escapes” to Hong Kong where stores and restaurants feel more familiar to him. This literary connection felt weaker than the one he made between Nineteen Eighty-Four and North Korea, although that could be because I have not read Dante’s work, and his high praise of Hong Kong due to its more Westernized construction presented him as the kind of tourist I loathe.

Much of his boredom seemed to stem from Delisle being unable to find someone to converse with, although he did not bother to try to learn Chinese, and unfortunately this feeling of boredom seeped into the story. Interestingly, he was still invited to dinner at his coworkers’ homes even though few of them could converse with him without the aid of his translator (who did not always attend said dinners) and another called dozens of friends to locate a specific brand of tea Delisle requested because the host did not have it on hand. Yet such stunning displays of hospitality were often ridiculed by the author and the book as a whole failed to capture the insight into his host country I have come to expect with his travelogues.

Minor quibble but the letter ‘o’ was often drawn as an incomplete circle and there were multiple points during my reading where I wondered if he meant to write ‘o’ or ‘u’. This was especially problematic when it came to his use of Chinese words as I did not out the error until it appeared he wrote ‘Rumania’ instead of ‘Romania’.

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