Guy Delisle, writer/artist
Drawn & Quarterly, 2006
Shenzhen is the second book to be released in French-Canadian cartoonist/animator Guy Delisle’s series of travelogues about working in Asian dictatorships (although I believe it was the first to be written); the art in both the ones I’ve read so far is so effortless and well-constructed it almost disappears. This book’s predecessor, Pyongyang, was a really breathtaking look at life in the country with the worst human rights record on Earth–I mean, how can you top a fish-out-of-water story set in a nation that seems to have used 1984 as a how-to manual? You can’t, really, and Shenzhen doesn’t come across as an attempt. Since the Chinese autocracy, at least in the areas Delisle visits, is far less all-pervasive than Kim Jong-Il’s, the book is by necessity a lot less about normal workaday life butting up against the contours of a nightmarish totalitarianism. Obviously there’s a culture clash to be found, but Delisle is quite aware that whatever “inscrutability” he finds in the customs and habits of his hosts lies at least as much with him as it does with them.
Instead, Shenzhen slowly reveals itself to be about how life in the city–an economic “free zone” surrounded by electric fences and guard towers, a place that’s freer than nearly any other in China yet still drearily proscripted–is sort of a macro version of what Delisle’s internal life as a working stiff is in micro. While in many ways Delisle and his European and American counterparts have much more freedom than anyone he’ll meet in China–at a “miniature world tour” tourist attraction he reflects that if he wanted he could simply buy a ticket to India and visit the actual Taj Mahal, while a tiny, rat-infested replica is as close as any of his co-workers are ever likely to get–his dispiriting daily routine is hardly any different from those of his Chinese counterparts. The biggest discrepancy appears to lie in the availability of leisure products: There’s something quite poignant about how his co-workers glom on to whatever meager scraps of Western art and entertainment they can get–a single picture of a Rembrandt painting, a Magic Johnson highlight reel, a painting of a French dinner setting, bootleg movies with the theater audience visible and audible–while Delisle can lie on his bed and listen to “the new Portishead CD” and wonder what the maid in his hotel, who occasionally uses/abuses his discman while she cleans, must think of it. What emerges is a picture of life in a state that has gone from Communist to corporatist, accruing the world-power benefits of wealth while passing few of its normally attendant social improvements down to the workers who make that wealth possible–and the disquieting hint that we Western wage slaves, whatever somatic advantages we might have, are a lot more similar to the workers of Shenzhen than we’d like to believe.