Thursday, May 19, 2016

Shenzhen: a Travelogue from China by Guy Delisle

I first got on to Guy Delisle when I read a blog post of Adrian McKinty's recommending another book of his called Burma Chronicles. I went on to read the book. I'd forgotten this, but apparently, I liked it well enough that I went on to write a review myself.

This year, I made it to the National Free Comic Book Day, the one day of the year when I become something of a comic book maniac, thanks to the generous support of the day by two great local comic book stores, Comicopolis and Atlantis Fantasy World. And I like to buy something just as a thanks for the free fun stuff. So this year, one of the graphic novels I bought was another Guy DeLisle book about Shenzhen, a major financial center in Southern China, just north of Hong Kong. Close in geographical distance, but separated by differing histories, as Hong Kong lay under British rule and influence for a century and a half.

Delisle didn't make light of some of the repressive aspects of Burma, or Myanmar, as it's now called. But as he was there with his wife and young child, there was a different quality to his life than there is in this one, where he is visiting for a short period of time to oversee outsourced Chinese animation for a French company.

Looking at various Good Reads reviews just now, I see that people were less enchanted with this book than they were with Burma Chronicles, as Delisle doesn't really take to Shenzhen. But I found it a very interesting portrait of a traveler's isolation and alienation in a country where he doesn't speak the language and contacts with people he can talk to are few and far between. Weekend visits to Hong Kong and even Canton are different experiences, but Delisle is constantly frustrated in his attempts to visit the countryside, not by the powers that be, but by his inability to catch the right bus or find the right bike route to do this. The book records an experience of Shenzhen circa 1997, and nearly twenty years may have made a difference as far as accessibility for foreigners goes. But in that year, it seems to be a busy, rather somber and functional place. The dark palette he uses to show it is quite different from the more sunny one he used in Burma Chronicles.

Even here, though, Delisle comes across some quite touching displays of human compassion and interest in him, and despite a certain despondency he is unable to conquer, he is quick to record the human side of the city as well.

I'll read more Delisle, though will perhaps pace myself a little before I take on, say, Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea...

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