Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China

Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China captures Guy Delisle’s culture shock in visiting a country so very different from his own. Shenzhen is in Southern China, near Hong Kong. He’s been sent to this commercial city in the late 90s to supervise an animation crew.

For three months, he’s got to deal with inferior work, a lack of other foreigners, and the things that are common to all big cities: dirt, noise, smells. There aren’t many translators, and those that are aren’t very good. He’s very lonely. Trips to nearby Canton, a more welcoming city, come as a break and a high point.

Delisle’s European drawing style applies a humorous veneer to what might otherwise be a rather grim tale. But it’s so clearly hand-drawn — the lines of the buildings, for example, aren’t quite straight — that it takes on a cartoony feel, providing the reader some distance. Shading is done with different pencil greys, again reinforcing the hand-created feel that contrasts with and humanizes the mechanized urban setting. It’s a good choice for a smudgy, over-crowded city.

His claustrophobic panels, small and cramped, represent his mental state. They also do a wonderful job of capturing the right moments to give the feel of another country. His animation background allows for a sense of movement, so the art never feels static or too much like a travelogue. The bicycling sequence is especially effective. His skills are also helpful illustrating occurrences without text, for the many times when the language barrier gets in the way.

There’s no overwhelming story, just a series of moments captured as a way to pass the time until he could leave. One of the most harrowing, and thus memorable, incidents was his visit to a dentist, and the unsanitary, crowded way they practice. That’s balanced by amusing tips, such as when and how he figures out how to get by in a restaurant on his own. He mentions spending days without speaking to anyone, which leads to him silently talking to himself.

He also ponders bigger concepts: the nature of freedom, Chinese economic development, trust and paranoia. His vision can be so negative that if he wasn’t French-Canadian, he might be accused of being an ugly American. However, I can’t say that I’d feel any different in a country so different from my own where I didn’t speak the language and had nothing to do but work with those I didn’t respect. Neither he nor the Chinese people he knows are interested in understanding each other; what would be the point? Their lives and expectations are too different.

A preview is available at the publisher’s website. A different visitor had different experiences in Shenzhen. Delisle tells of his experiences on a similar job in North Korea in Pyongyang. If you’re looking for another travel journal, try Lewis Trondheim’s Little Nothings 2.

6 Responses to “Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China”

  1. Reading Over Shoulders Says:

    […] absolutely adored Guy Delisle’s travelogue Pyongyang.  He’s returned with another book, this one about his experience in China. […]

  2. Hsifeng Says:

    Johanna Says:

    “Delisle tells of his experiences on a similar job in North Korea in Pyongyang.”

    He also wrote The Burma Chronicles. I haven’t read it yet myself, but he didn’t have a similar job there (his wife is an aid worker for Medecins Sans Frontières and he went along to take care of the baby).

  3. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] enjoyed Guy Delisle’s Shenzhen, so I was eager to try his earlier Pyongyang, in which he journeys to North Korea. I’m glad I […]

  4. hcduvall Says:

    Does he call the neighboring city Canton? What an odd thing to do, considering his calling his host city Shenzhen means he’s using the modern Chinese naming conventions.

    I liked Pyongyang, but that had a lot to do with how North Korea is more or less a kind of sealed kingdom from the world. Just basic observations were interesting in that context. On the other hand there are a lot of great fisthand diaries of being in China right now (anywhere in China, really), so the the same light approach felt slight. But then, he went for work, and business trips, even to foreign exotic locales feel different.

    I don’t remember the whole thing that well, as its been a while, but the little preview remind me that he said he remembered the good parts and the exotic bits from an earlier visit. It’s a different thing to glimpse people’s actual working lives than being a tourist, I think.

  5. February 2012 Previews: Yes, It’s Late, But the Books Are Still Good » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] enjoyed Delisle’s previous travelogues, exploring exotic, remote cities such as Pyongyang and Shenzhen (both reoffered this month), so I’m eager for this volume, looking at a key world capital […]

  6. The Jewish Experience in Graphic Novels: How to Understand Israel, Jerusalem, Letting It Go, The Property » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] this is far from Guy Delisle’s first travelogue. Previously, he’s shown us life in Shenzhen (China) and Pyongyang (North Korea). Those are countries we think we understand the bad things about, and […]




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