Let me just indicate that I am an avid fan of artist Guy Delisle's graphic novels and short stories. I have since purchased his newest book "Burma Chronicles" after reading his wonderful, insightful and caustic "Pyongyang", which details the bizarre, communist "hermit" nation of North Korea.
"Shenzhen" by no means, was the author's first book of its kind, and the predecessor to "Pyongyang". In thisblack-and-white graphic novel, Delisle chronicles his stay in the province of Shenzhen, a region near other major cities in communist China, and the more liberal nations Hong Kong and Taiwan. Personally, I had high expectations for this book despite the somewhat mediocre reviews already up on Amazon. I bought it together with "Burma Chronicles" and read it as soon as it was shipped to me from America. As my first review on Amazon, it saddens me to give this book a 2 out of 5 stars.
First of all, I must compare "Shenzhen" to Delisle's "Pyongyang", because expectations precedes my opinion of the book here. Where "Pyongyang" succeeded as a highly-intelligent, witty, satirical and insightful graphic novel (which this comic genre rarely does) about the absurdities of North Korean life under the dictatorship of Kim Jong-Il, "Shenzhen" does little to inform, to humour, or to intrigue the readers much. Delisle's Shenzhen travelogue merely focuses on his personal boredom, alienated state of being as a foreigner whom knows nothing about the Chinese culture and way of life as he does his job as an animator consultant in an outsourced studio (which does animation series for TV). Through his drawings, narrative boxes and speech bubbles, we are brought into a totally new environment of China and the way of life of the Chinese people as Delisle interacts with his people from various businesses, from strangers, as well as fellow colleagues, along with translators helping and following his footsteps. However, this merely brings us a glimpse into the China culture through a foreigner's eyes, from how some Chinese food is revolting to him, to how a public toilet (arranged in 2 columns of squats with no form of barriers at all) ludicrously resembles an altar of sorts. Personally, most of these "glimpses" are interesting, though trivial. They aren't really superficial per se, but it all seems too spontaneous, and at times frivolous. At one moment in the book, Delisle himself even admits that "[he] keep[s] at [writing] without real conviction. Going in circles in a hotel room, even if it is in China, doesn't seem like the kind of trip anybody would want to read about." First of all, although he may be plain honest about his disparate connection with the Chinese' way of life here, but to admitting it would nonetheless be disengaging himself with the enticing readers. Secondly, Delisle deviates from the main setting of his story as he makes occasional trips to Canton (Guangzhou) and Hong Kong. Instead of making explicit, tangible comparisons between these supposedly more democratic and liberal nations with China, he bragged about how bored he was in Shenzhen and makes flippant comments and jokes about how he enjoyed his shopping spree in Hong Kong.
There are no specific chapter divides in "Shenzhen", except each segment begins with a full-page, realistically rendered drawing of some random building or skyscraper under construction, before moving on to his different sojourns and trips to various locales in Shenzhen. As compared to Delisle's follow-up "Pyongyang", which details much more about the draconian, authoritative control that is exerted on the North Korean people, from the robbing of their liberty, to the disparate class of wealth between the elites and peasants in the communist nation, "Shenzhen" does nothing significant of this sort. Like "Shenzhen", every chapter in "Pyongyang" begins with a full-paged drawing of places/monuments (such as the Juche Tower or the emblem of the Marxist-Communist party), but it further serves the purpose of revealing, one after another, interesting facets of the plight of the N. Korean people and its deplorable culture and practices. Again, "Shenzhen" does nothing of this sort.
The drawings in "Shenzhen" are mostly etched with charcoal, along with other varied styles such as ink or scanned pictures from real sources to represent different times and situations. Most of the charcoal drawings however appear somewhat skimpy and sparse, and often messy, which is inherently different from "Pyongyang", which is more clean, neat, consistent and candid. Perhaps, this adds to Delisle's treatment of the city as one that is blighted or heavily polluted.
As a Singaporean Chinese (not China-Chinese) who knows how to speak Mandarin, also, it is somewhat offensive for Chinese readers like me to detect the incongruity in the speech bubbles of the Chinese characters depicted in his book. Delisle, to his convenience, chose to inscribe nonsensically-pieced words picked from god-knows-what passages that absolutely make no meaning at all, at least to readers who knows Chinese. To English and other foreign readers, this is an otherwise trivial note, and one which adds to the obliviousness of Delisle's experience in China and his blatant disregard for the Chinese audience and language.
In short, "Shenzhen" offers a fresh but limited perspective of life as a foreigner in China. For this reason, along with an identical price tag to the successful book "Pyongyang", I had expected more from Delisle, and was highly disappointed in the end. I hope his latest work "Burma Chronicles" does more, like "Pyongyang", to reveal more interesting facets of life and culture under authoritative regimes, and not fall into the trap of bemoaning about his boredom or alienation, or detail flippant activities and non-enticing monologues.