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Shenzen: A Travelogue From China s/c

Shenzen: A Travelogue From China s/c back

Guy Delisle


Page 45 Review by Stephen

Second sortie from the creator of PYONG YANG, one of my top five comics of 2005 and another book to make you thankful for your own postcode. The first saw Guy working in an animation studio in North Korea, whilst this one takes him to China for another month of hair-tearing, trying to make himself understood by a team of cack-handed animators who are well behind schedule and have left their previous director on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Shenzhen is a far cry from Hong Kong or Canton: no university, no cafés to speak of, and very few bilingual Chinese. It is, however, the fastest growing city in the world, apparently. "Some buildings go up at the rate of one floor a day." And it's not as if Guy is unused to odd hotel rooms...

"The first few nights, I can't sleep. Across the way, people slave through the night, squatting over washbasins. Weeks later, I realise it's the hotel laundry service. Apparently the machines out back are decoration." A similar revelation is born of frustration: "As usual, the maid left the air conditioning on full blast in my room. I'm freezing. Feeling a bit fed up, I give the thermostat a little kick. Thanks to my outburst, I discover the horrible truth... A camera! I've been under surveillance all along!... Must be the KGB! No, not at all. There is no camera... and besides the KGB is Soviet, not Chinese. But I discover something else: the temperature control on the AC doesn't control a thing. It's just a plastic dial held in place by a screw."
It's no surprise that Guy is a little edgy. "On my way down to the bank, I notice a strange building, some 15 stories high with no windows. A large grey concrete slab. Bizarre." Try picturing that, and then wondering what it's function might be...

This is what I love about Delisle's writing - and art - I get to learn so much about lives so alien to ours, a world which seems topsy-turvy, in which, for example, you can pick up a Rolex no problem, but in which it takes Guy three days to find a store selling a basic kitchen knife so that he can cut up an apple in his hotel room. And if you feel oppressed by the zany service in places like GTI Fridays here, "For the opening of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, young uniformed employees do a little promotional dance number [out on the street] that has a military feel to it." You should see the shop mannequins! As to the markets... "Garbage is thrown into the centre of the aisles. In the course of the day, passersby grind it down underfoot until it gradually turns to mush. Up ahead, an old man suddenly slips and falls. Nobody reacts... He gets up and when I'm next to him, I notice a banana peel at his feet... Unbelievable! This guy slipped on a banana peel right in front of me! A banana peel! I can hardly believe my eyes. I thought it only ever happened in comics..."

As last time, however, it's Guy's eye for the absurdities that really entertains. Take the peak above Hong Kong with its panoramic views of the city, where instead of being photographed with that very view in the background, tourists go to have themselves captured against a blue screen there, after which the photographer uses a computer to overlay the same view of the city - even though it's right in front of him!

Delisle may gaze in wonder, but he never sniggers or sneers, and one can only feel humbled by the acts of kindness he's privy to - and no small acts of kindness, either, from those who have so little - like Mr. Lin playing host and phoning round all his friends in the search of some tea, then taking Guy back by taxi. Not putting him in one, taking him back in one. "All that attention from someone I hardly knew, just so I could have a Merry Christmas."

I couldn't really ask for a better link, or an inadvertent conclusion, because this is one of the books I'll be buying my relatives who like to travel - who watch Michael Palin on his own BBC voyages of discovery. The panels are laid on in a clear, three-tier fashion, so there'll be no problem reading the book for newcomers to comics, and you really don't get much more Mainstream than the sort of material that gets a prime slot on television. But staying a full month and actually working where he stays gives Delisle a greater insight than Palin's hit-and-run travelling, no matter how many paid researchers he has on his team.