GUY DELISLE in the Asia Times

“Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China by Guy Delisle” / Asia Times / Fraser Newham / January 20, 2007

Guy Delisle was far from home in a three-star Chinese hotel, shivering in the arctic blast of an air-con on the blink. There was every indication that the project was heading for disaster - and no guarantees that his local colleagues even understood there was a problem. He was ready to snap.

The obvious next move? To attack the hotel room; in Delisle's case with a sharp roundhouse kick to the wall-mounted air-conditioner control, utterly unresponsive up to this point, presumed broken. It was only when his head cleared that Delisle, inspecting the damage, discovered the futility even of that. "The temperature control on the AC doesn't control a thing," he writes. "It's just a plastic dial held in place by a screw."

There may just be Asia Times Online readers who find all this a little bit familiar, for such is the stuff of working life on the frontiers of globalization. At the time Delisle was working in animation, a French-Canadian plying his trade among the studios of Europe - studios that by the late 1990s had largely gone out of business as work migrated to the cheaper workshops of Eastern Europe and the Far East. Delisle had stuck with his French employers, but consequently his work saw him spending increasing amounts of time in East Asia on short-term managerial contracts.

Two such jaunts he has turned into a pair of graphic novels, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, originally published in French and now newly reissued in English-language international editions.

Chronologically, his Shenzhen trip came first; the book records a lonely two months he spent there over Christmas 1997, working on the animated version of popular French comic strip Papyrus. Meanwhile, his stint in the hardcore-sounding destination of Pyongyang came five years later; there he represented French channel TF1, one of a hardy gang of French-employed animators managing some of the cheapest animation talent in the world during a brief window of opportunity, now closed (by sanctions).

Outsourcing, both books make clear, is no picnic - or this, at least, is the view from the ground. In North Korea, life is relentlessly colored by the need to make political accommodations with the regime. On arrival he is required to pay homage to a statue of Kim Il-sung. Most of his movements are shadowed by an official minder, and at work an elderly political commissar pads around the studio drinking tea from a tin cup. At one point at work he pops a jazz compact disc into his personal computer, and his minder flies into the room insisting that he shut the door, lest the devilish beats pump forbidden thoughts of freedom through his local colleagues' veins.

In Shenzhen, by contrast, his accommodation is with the buccaneering, unsteady capitalism of China in the first months after Deng Xiaoping. He is very conscious that he is living in a cultural desert, where only construction, development and making money feature on the local agenda. The whole organization in Shenzhen is flying by the seat of its pants, and Delisle must contend with mountains of work, impossible deadlines and penny-pinching wherever possible. Soon after his arrival, for instance, he discovers that the local partner has ditched layout altogether - instead the animators only have photocopied storyboards to guide them, all to save a buck.

In both settings he has familiar-sounding difficulties communicating his requirements to his staff. Animators at the Pyongyang studio just can't nail that typically French (and seemingly quite essential) gesture, the "ooh la la"; and in Shenzhen he resigns himself to micromanaging his staff, writing out the smallest of instructions to avoid confusion and, when all else fails, even as his desk groans under the accumulated workload, in time-honored fashion rolling up his sleeves and damn-well-doing-it-himself.

To revisit these joyful times in the form of a graphic novel has novelty value - Tintin, Delisle implies at one point, never had to put up with this - and certainly the author makes the most of the format here. On one level the immediacy of cartoon strips allows Delisle as a short-term visitor to document what he finds with reasonable accuracy; he can draw what he sees, to a large extent unencumbered by his inexperience. The artwork is atmospheric, too - the Shenzhen of 10 years ago, with its skyscrapers, factories and construction sites, receives a bleak depiction; clouds of smoke and dust hang in the air, as a harassed population chase a horribly distant better life.

And as for Pyongyang - by day it may be a city of sterile, monumental architecture, of underused broad avenues and a subway system quietly humming under Muscovite chandeliers; but by night, as the lights go out and the city is given over to blackness, Delisle portrays a more mysterious form of urban life, lurking out there in the dark. The silent city, it seems, is alive with dimly perceived figures, members of a paperless underclass 6 million strong, who come out only at night, shuffling like lepers through the unlit streets, caught only for a brief second here and there in the headlights of a passing car.

Unsurprisingly, sheer novelty has meant that Pyongyang has received the more publicity of the two. In Time magazine, one commentator wrote with regret that Delisle's insights perhaps failed to penetrate beneath the party-smoothed surface, arguing that during his short stay, Delisle merely found what he went looking for, and that as a result he missed the chance to penetrate beneath the robotic North Korean veneer.

Certainly the author traveled with a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in his suitcase (literally), and he is keen to apply Orwellian thinking to the Dear Leader's world. But perhaps there are worse guides than George Orwell to this kind of thing; and while Korea-watchers may detect a moment or two of excitability on Delisle's part, when used judiciously - as, generally, is the case here - Nineteen Eighty-Four provides him with a useful analytical framework.

At the same time, both books have a strong personal element, particularly in Shenzhen, which has less journalist content than Pyongyang. Delisle is most concerned with the experiences of globalization, of the short-contract expert fighting for a cab in some obscure airport somewhere in the developing world. Particularly in Shenzhen, he powerfully evokes the potential for this to be an isolated and lonely experience.

Unable to communicate with his colleagues, and with little contact with other foreigners, his days lack genuine connection with other people - his attempts to find a university community where he might meet multilingual locals interested in the outside world come to nothing, and instead all he has are the meaningless "hellos" and "how to do you dos" of passers-by as he wanders the streets after work; or during office hours, what probably is a brief opportunity to get married (or at least undressed), when a female colleague begins what seems to be a short-lived and silent courtship, leaving hamburgers and posed studio photos of herself on his desk over a number of days, all without a word. Delisle doesn't respond, and his admirer moves on.

Surprisingly, he seems to have more fun in Pyongyang, partying and joking around with the small European community concentrated in the city's non-governmental-organization compound and three international hotels. But even then he isn't exactly sad to leave - and perhaps this is the most unusual (and relevant) feature of the books. Delisle's employers sent him to Shenzhen and North Korea - and like more than a few on the jet-set treadmill, these weren't places where he particularly wanted to be.

Altogether, he provides an enjoyable account of his experience, one that, for some, may just ring a few bells.


Fraser Newham is a UK-based freelance journalist specializing in China.

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