BookDragon Books for the Multi-Culti Reader

Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China by Guy Delisle, translated by Helge Dascher

ShenzhenThe year is 1997 when Guy Delisle journeyed to Shenzhen, an industrial city in southern China, to oversee a production project for his French animation employer. His China gig would follow with another outsourced animation project that would lead to his Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, which was actually published before Shenzhen.

Delisle, besides being an entertaining artist, is also a droll, insightful observer. Don’t let his relaxed demeanor fool you: In spite of any protestations of ‘lost in translation’ cultural miscommunication, Delisle misses little, showing that sometimes the slightest, seemingly meaningless details reveal the most noteworthy insights of all.

Delisle’s three-month assignment is a morphing combination of the poignant and absurd. A street person goes through the motions of banging his head (his long hair hides the fact that he stops just before his head actually hits the pavement), while uniformed employees perform a line dance to commemorate the opening of a new Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Trying to avoid another grisly visit to dentist, Delisle carries the last of his leftover dental floss in his pocket to prevent the hotel maids from discarding his overused bits. He spends a rather fairy tale evening working out by candlelight when the power goes out at the local gym (“after all, the machines work on muscle power”). And every few pages, Delisle depicts the linguistic evolution of the hotel doorman who greets him with a new senseless, non-sequitur English phrase, but by book’s end just might get a word or two right.

Bemoaning the grey bleakness of Shenzhen, Delisle openly wishes he could have instead been based in Hong Kong (where he feels like Tintin making new discoveries) or Canton (where he’s accosted by an overly friendly young man hoping to practice his English which he speaks “like a Spanish cow”).

Yet he does acknowledge, “If I draw all these anecdotes one day, it will probably look like I had a great time here. Taken out of context, even boredom can probably sublimate itself and seem entertaining … it’s a bit like memory,” he muses. Lucky for us readers, his memory filters his experiences to create unique travelogues of cultural discovery … not to mention bewildered understanding.

Tidbit: For a mind-blowing, 21st-century NOW look at Shenzhen today, check out phenomenal Mike Daisey‘s latest one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. It sold out at Berkeley Rep and DC’s Woolly Mammoth, is currently up at Seattle Rep (through May 22). It’s coming this fall to the Public in NYC. If you get the chance, do NOT miss it!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006 (United States)