Monday, March 02, 2009

Review of Shenzhen by Guy Delisle

Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly Books 2003).

When I was 19, I thought Boston was the greatest city in the world. It had everything a bookish young man could want: dozens of colleges, hundreds of years of history and thousands of things to do in my spare time. I thought I would never leave.

Over time, I realized that Boston was a rough place with only a patina of sophistication. It was more Southie than Sackler, and I came to loathe its dirt, its corruption, its winters.

Today, you’d have to pay me a lot of money to live along its hard, dangerous streets, but I’m certain that, at this moment, there’s a 19-year-old riding the T who thinks that Boston is the most electric place on earth. I wish him well.

The same city can shift meanings. One person falls out of love, while another becomes besotted. And two people can have diametric reactions to the same physical space.

All of which is prologue to the fact that I don’t agree with Guy Delisle’s portrait of Shenzhen, but I respect it. In his graphic novel of the same name, Delisle portrays the southern Chinese port city as an alien, off-putting place. That wasn’t my experience at all.

Delisle was dispatched to Shenzhen for three months to supervise a team of Chinese animators, and he found it a lonely, confusing assignment. Communication was difficult, even with the translators. Private apartments had bars on the doors. The public toilets were disgusting, and the local doctors were terrifying. Delisle draws Shenzhen in a grey palette using uncolored pencils, underscoring what was to him a drab, commercial city.

My Shenzhen was a different place. It was a thoroughly contemporary city, where I could eat at Pizza Hut, buy Nikes, jog past the stock exchange and read English-language posters advertising Mandarin lessons. Chinese office workers would carry books about computer programming, and every modern convenience could be had. Shenzhen was a Chinese city, to be sure – which meant kilometers of identical apartment towers and sidewalk vendors hawking pirate DVDs -- but it was a dues-paying member of the modern world.

My Shenzhen was not drab. Many new buildings were covered in pink or yellow tile. The streets were lively and packed, especially the older neighborhoods with their blind, narrow alleys. Mainlanders streamed into the city, which was as close as the average Chinese person could get to the wonders of Hong Kong. And Shenzhen was famous for its Wild West approach to business, as epitomized by the provincial Chinese proverb, “The hills are high, and the Emperor is far away.” Frontier border towns are many things, but they are not dull.

What explains the difference between Delisle’s Shenzhen and mine? Several years, for one, since Delisle’s visit was in the late 1990s and mine was in 2007. But that’s not a satisfactory explanation.

It was probably a matter of mindset. Delisle was in Shenzhen working, frustrated with his poorly trained animators. I was taking a year off to explore Asia, without a worry. Every experience is filtered through the traveler’s personal lens, so Delisle and I reacted differently to the same stimuli. He was alienated. I was entranced.

We agree on one point: By an accident of birth, some people can travel, and others cannot, and that is a great sadness.

Near the middle of the graphic novel, Delisle and his Chinese translator visit a cheesy Shenzhen theme park named “Windows of the World” which features smaller-scale replicas of global landmarks such as the Great Pyramids and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

“It does leave you with an urge to travel. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Taj Mahal one of these days,” Delisle thinks while riding the bus back into town. “When I think that all I’ve got to do is buy a ticket. I can go where I like.”

He looks at his Chinese translator, who may never be able to afford a trip to Beijing, much less India.

“We hardly ever stop to notice how amazingly free we really are,” Delisle thinks.

No, we don’t.



Blogger moi said...

"By an accident of birth, some people can travel, and others cannot, and that is a great sadness." How true!

On a separate note, I love your description of how your relationship to Boston changed! Did the city itself change, or just you? My relationship with Mumbai has changed because I think the city has changed. Something snapped in 1993.

8:28 AM  
Blogger PKL said...

I changed. Boston does not change rapidly, which may be its problem. Many of the region's characteristics are institutionalized: the town-gown conflicts, the mordantly corrupt government, the weather, the class animus.

3:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been to Boston.

That "Cheers" bar is fantastic! And those statues of Sam Adams all over the place?! Charming! And I wish they never finished that Big Dig. It felt like progress was being made every single day for years and years!

Yeah, whatever. Boston is yet another major city in the East riding on past glories and the constant influx of new blood infused by multiple major Lefty universities.

7:03 AM  

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