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September 23, 2009

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Two Frenchmen call the tune in 'Chinatoon'

TOM and Alex are a pair of hapless French expats in Shanghai. Every month they get into scrapes and funny adventures due to cultural and language misunderstandings around town.

But unlike most expat lives, their stories are published for everyone to see online and in an expat magazine.

That's because they are cartoon characters, whose lives in Shanghai are recorded in a series called "Chinatoon."

According to their creators, Frenchmen Patrick Baboulin and David Lenormand, Alex is the good-looking, outgoing one who's working at an internship while partying a lot. Tom, on the other hand, is more laid-back, a teddy bear teacher-type with an array of part-time jobs.

It doesn't take much to work out that the characters are based on the creators themselves, whose quirky, expat lives are the inspiration for the plot lines of the cartoons.

"Stories are everywhere - it's on the streets and in friend's experiences," says Baboulin who comes up with story concepts for the cartoons. "I don't even have to think very hard. Different parts of Shanghai yield different stories, like in the touristy areas you can see the bad habits of foreigners. On the Metro you can see the rush and pushing and shoving."

While Baboulin is the brains behind the story, Lenormand brings it to life with his illustrations. The two met in June 2006 when they were both working as film extras on TV programs. The long hours on set waiting between takes got them talking and they became best friends soon after.

Lenormand doodled in a notebook during those hours and it caught Baboulin's attention. Not long before he had witnessed a funny incident involving an American tourist who tried to bargain in Chinese, but because of language difficulties he ended up paying more than the vendor asked for. That was the catalyst for a cartoon series about foreigners in China and culture shock.

The two friends have similar hobbies - martial arts, video games and of course cartoons. But like Alex and Tom, Baboulin is more outgoing and Lenormand is more introspective, preferring to express himself in drawing.

Their experiences in China are also quite similar. Both came to Shanghai with only the vaguest idea of what they wanted to do here, and found a wealth of opportunities.

Lenormand had always loved drawing and art. But after graduating from a French university in art and design, he found it hard to find creative jobs. Instead he worked in transient, manual jobs while drawing in his free time, and "fighting to realize my dream of making a living with art."

Before he came to Shanghai, Lenormand worked in a video store. When the contract was up he decided to take a chance in another country. With an interest in martial arts and some Asian friends, he decided to have a three-month holiday in Shanghai.

He arrived in China in 2006 and soon found a job designing jewelry part-time. Meanwhile he took bit parts in TV adverts and continued drawing.

In Shanghai he also started drawing a manga series about a real-life Japanese samurai that he had planned for 10 years. Recently it was accepted by a French publisher - thus marking at least the start of his dreams coming true.

"In three years here I've had more opportunities than in my whole life in France," says Lenormand.

Permanent stay

Even before arriving in Shanghai, the future of the two seemed entwined. Baboulin left for Shanghai in August 2005 shortly after his 22nd birthday. When he left his mother gave him a book about a Japanese samurai - the same character that Lenormand would later depict.

Baboulin had graduated in history in France and had similar difficulty finding an interesting job that he liked. With an adventurous personality he decided to travel the world and backpacked around the United States before coming to China. He also planned for a three-month trip, which has turned into a permanent stay.

Also a fan of martial arts, Baboulin wanted to visit Shaolin Temple in Henan Province. He traveled across China, including Beijing and Guilin (Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), but never made it to Shaolin as his career picked up in Shanghai.

Baboulin says the Year of France in China in 2005 was a major reason why he has decided to stay.

"There was a lot of Chinese coverage in France that year, and it was clear that in the future if I want to make money and be somebody I need to be in China," he says. "People think I'm crazy but I'm packing in more experiences than is possible in three or four lifetimes back in France."

Baboulin is a recent father and is soon starting a new job in a five-star hotel. Meanwhile he is continuing acting and "Chinatoon."

The duo plan to create a "Chinatoon" Website that archives all the cartoons, and make an animated movie based on the characters about the life of foreigners in China.Patrick & David

Patrick Baboulin

Nationality: French

Age: 30

Profession: TV actor/model, cartoonist, restaurant manager, French teacher

David Lenormand

Nationality: French

Age: 28

Profession: cartoonist



Patrick: Ambitious, funny, a bit arrogant

David: Modest, resilient, quiet

Favorite place:

Patrick: Jing'an Temple - it always seems to be the meeting place for everything.

David: A Brazilian restaurant on Hengshan Road.

Strangest sight:

Patrick: People transport the weirdest things on their bikes, like fridges, and once I even saw a live pig on the back of a bike.

David: Food can be very strange. Once in Beijing I saw scorpions on a skewer, and people ate what looked like cocoons.

Perfect weekend:

Patrick: Go to a party on Friday night, do some sports on Saturday then barbecue at home. Sunday just relax because Shanghai is so busy.

David: Shanghai is too crowded on the weekends for me, I like to leave the city and spend the weekend in nature.

Worst experience:

Patrick: The first time I took a long-distance train ride across China. It was 24 hours and I was sitting next to a baby who went to the toilet on the seat!

David: There's not one thing but little inconsiderate acts annoying me like people who park their vehicles right in front of a shop door.

Motto for life:

Patrick: Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

David: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

How to improve Shanghai:

Patrick: More general politeness.

David: The subway closes too early. Also there should be pinyin on bus stop signs like in Beijing and even Guilin. I can't understand why it's not like that here.


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