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Inside Kunming's 'dwarf empire'

This article was posted by in Features and published

Techno music bombards 400 Chinese tourists as a chilly wind blows across a mountaintop theater on the outskirts of Kunming. Most of the audience doesn't appear to be thinking about the unpleasant gray weather – their attention is focused on the dozens of dwarves dressed as medieval soldiers, butterflies, cooks and hiphoppers before them.

"Please welcome the king of the empire of the little short people!" the dwarf host says in Chinese, as a two-and-a-half foot man emerges from the forest of cartoonish concrete castles above the performance area.

In a bright yellow military coat covered with mushrooms, his long hair tucked behind his cap and black sunglasses complementing his regal visage, the "king" waves to the audience, which responds with reverent applause.

The above scene occurs twice daily at Dwarf Empire, a dwarf theme park that has become a popular new addition to World Ecological Garden of Butterfly (世界蝴蝶生态园), an already established butterfly theme park about 40 kilometers southwest of Kunming.

Of the 80-plus dwarves who constitute Dwarf Empire, there are Chinese people from every corner of the country who for a variety of reasons are extremely short, with the tallest being four feet three inches and the shorter residents being just a squeak over two feet.

Dwarf Empire, which officially opened last month but crowned its king as part of a soft launch on July 1, is a project of Yunnan Botai Venture Investment Co Ltd and Yunnan Jiucai Yundie Biotech Co Ltd, which acquired the plot from local land officials in 2006.

Many Western media have locked onto the mistaken notion that Dwarf Empire was founded by the dwarves themselves prior to becoming a theme park. This is no dwarf commune, this is a business venture.

Non-dwarf Wu Wei, manager of Dwarf Empire, and in the parlance of the dwarves a "normal person", says the park is about respect for its dwarf employees.

"We've given them their own territory, their own platform," she said.

Wu and several park employees said dwarves working at the park receive 1,000 yuan ($147) per month plus free room and board – better remuneration than a university graduate in Kunming can expect to be offered. Employees are no younger than 18 years old and no older than 40, she said.

Xiaoxiao, a cherubic young woman of 20 from the city of Harbin in northwestern China, was selected by park management to be princess of Dwarf Empire. Very proportionate despite her diminutive stature, Xiaoxiao speaks good English and is also the hostess of the two daily performances at the park.

When not onstage, Xiaoxiao makes coffee or tea for guests inside the miniature castles – three US dollars will get you a small watered-down cup of instant coffee. While discussing the plight of the average dwarf in China, she says probably half of the park's occupants had considered suicide before starting their current jobs.

"For many people like us, it's difficult to find work," she said. "We're looked at as being strange in the outside world, but here it's quite good."

Lin Sen, a young man from Jiangxi province who has been living at the park for the last three months, said that overall life in the park was better for all the dwarf residents, who also receive dance training and English lessons.

"It's really pretty good here," Lin said. "There isn't much for us to do workwise in the outside world other than bar or promotional work which is generally humiliating."

Chinese visitors to the park are obviously attracted by the novelty of a dwarf village, but there does not appear to be any belittling of the park's residents. Most visitors spend a couple of hours in the park, taking photos of – and with – the dwarves, maybe having a coffee and then leaving after the performance or staying around for beer and barbecue at night.

According to Wu it was initially difficult for the park to attract employees, due to concern by families of dwarves that they would be exploited or scammed. In order to allay such worries the park made relocation fees part of the employment package for its dwarf employees. Almost all of the 80 dwarves living in the park take part in the daily performances, with a handful working as food and gift vendors or janitors.

Park manager Wu said that not all dwarves who have moved out to the park have been able to adjust to their new surroundings. Already accustomed to being picked on or harassed, many of the dwarves are skilled fighters.

There have been occurrences of fighting among employees and also one instance in which a group of dwarves were involved in an altercation with non-dwarves in the nearby town of Heiqiaomu. The fight was so bloody that one of the park's dwarves ended up losing his job.

Another drawback for some of the dwarves is adjusting to the dry climate and intense UV rays in Kunming, which is more than a mile above sea level.

"We're all getting quite dark from all the sun we've been getting here," said one employee from the overcast city of Chongqing. "But we're surrounded by nice scenery and are able to make a decent living, so it's not so bad."

During the recent eight-day national holiday in China, Dwarf Empire's two daily musical performances have been attracting between 300 and 400 people who pay 80 yuan to watch the park's resident dwarves sing, dance, play musical gourds, breakdance and perform qigong tricks.

All told, the performance differs little from variety shows on Chinese television, other than the fact that all the performers are dwarves. Some of the performers put in average performances, while others shine. After finishing singing an upbeat pop song, a woman does a one-handed cartwheel, finishing in forward splits.

Like all empires, Dwarf Empire has expansion plans. Manager Wu said that the park has plans to eventually employ 600 dwarves. But in this case it is not as simple as "if you build it they will come".

"Marketing has been a problem so far," Wu admitted. "Most dwarves in China don't know about this place."

The park also aims to attract dwarves from beyond China's borders.

"We welcome all dwarves from overseas to come live here," she said.

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Comments

Tom

Speechless...The village looks like something I'd have drawn in third grade. Shuddering at the thought of Lin's idea of "promotional work" that IS humiliating. I miss KM.

misse

Fascinating story Chris. I think I'll go check it out too. How curious.

Michele Dalla Rosa

I've seen it a couple of weeks ago on cinaoggi.it:

www.cinaoggi.it/[...]

By the way, craziest place in China!

Hello,

I enjoyed reading about the Dwarf Empire. I will make sure that when I come to Kunming I will go visit the park and take many pictures. I am an American and am hopeful to someday teach English to Chinese People in Kunming. If I am situated close to The Dwarf Empire I would glady teach any of the little people English for free, if they would like. My wife is Chinese and resides in Chongqing. We are considering on moving to Kunming.

Sincerely,

Jack P ( scpd2555@bellsouth.net )

tatum lowry

I like the sound of this place everybody just seems to fit in there is no prejudice or anything.Obviously i aint as short as these guys but i am only 4'7 and i am not about to grow anymore.It seems that even if i could fit in i would be too tall which would suit me fine.I am now 22 years old and the onlt reason i am short is because my mum is 4'9 and my dad is 5'0.However i do have a 20 year old sister who managed to grow to 5'3 and my 25 year old brother is 4'10.I suppose it it because of short parents i ended up this way but everything is good for me i just hate being called cute though has it dont work being 22 yrs old hey.

paul hornsby

Maybe other short people should get together and try this out.I see that these people are probably alot shorter than other dwarfs.Being short i dont like names like dwarf midget freak.I should have realised my short commings when growing up i didnt realise how short i was compared to some kids in class.The tallest kid in class was about 5 inches taller than me.The girls were ok and felt that they had to help me in some way the boys were just very rude to me and this carried on through school.When mum and dad came to parents evening a couple of teachers mentioned that they now knew where i got my height from.I started high school being with a short group of small kids and i didnt grow much taller throughout.I think because my mum was 4'7 and my dad was 5'2 i ended up at 4'9 and the oldest out of my brother and sister.My brother was 5'0 and my sister was 4'11.We were always called names when we were out.Sadly in other countries it would be called manipulating these people but if they love doing it so be it.

sinitta jurra

What a good idea for these people to have a place of their own.Shame it cant happen anywhere else.I mean there are loads of short people and we have to just get on with it.I am 22 and my adult height is 4'8 my 20 yr old siter Danna is 4'7 and my 16 yr old brother Harai is only 4'5.My mum is 4'9 and my dad is 4'10.The only place we can go is to a group where it has short statured people adults and children.We more or less feel at home there has there is no one over 5'0.The shortest person is a woman and she is only 4'2 in the hall where we go everything is lowered for us has we can make drinks and have a chat with everyone.Once we are outside everything is back to normal and we are just short people again.I always wished i would be normal height like my classmates but it wasnt to be.I was always having to have help with reaching things.If i was picked to do a solution on the board i had to use a step with was embarrassing

Eric Pitman

Shame on all of you - absolutely ridiculous. This is NOT a solution to discrimination. I find it grotesque and abhorrent, and I can't believe anyone with any sense can indorse this sort of thing.

Chinese society is about strength and power. Look up anything on the lives of disabled people in China and you will see what I mean. Nurses will talk openly and smiling about how babies detected with potential disabilities are terminated before birth, how difficult it is to find work as a disabled person.

These people have been forced to live a life - regardless of how it is "better than suicide" - which is massively degrading. There's a myriad of jobs somebody could get regardless of their height. To say they "love doing it" is absurd. Even from some of the quotes in THIS article, it's clear that even THIS isn't true. But if any of them are happy, it seems only because the alternative is much worse - the fact they can only do bar and promotional work otherwise (also degrading).

Nobody should go there.

The whole venture (and it IS a business venture [see above]) should be boycotted, in the hope that China are forced to stop discrimination. This will be difficult though, because China is built on tasteless consumerism, and everybody in the west is too busy being dazzled by their economic prowess.

Shelly Paul

I enjoyed reading about the Dwarf Empire. I will make sure that when I come to Kunming I will go visit the park and take many pictures.I am also a dwarf person and i am from kerala{a state in India}.

kwai choi chang

I left China because of the ridicule of being short for my age.I can to Britain to be treated has others are.I am 19 and i stopped growing when i was 10 years old.My height was only 4'5 i put it down to short mum and dad.My mum was 4'7 and dad was 4'9.I only have my 13 year old sister and she is destined to be short like all of us.So far i think she is 4'4 and laughs about she may grow taller i cant see it.I hope not anyway.Some people are okay with us being short it is mostly young children they are forever staring at us when we go out.Apparently short people generally marry short people.I think it is about time to stop this and marry someone taller.I wouldnt be seen in this place even though i am abit taller than some of them which i am not proud of.

JJLuke77

ZOMG! They're A LOT!

stretch

Anybody been down there recently? Is the bus still running from Renmin Xi Lu?

Horst

Sounds to me like some descendants from the Dropa in Huilong or Bayan Kara Ula...

SusieD

Re above comments - if these people are happy then let them be, let them live as they wish . This looks like a good community with no prejudice.These people do some amazing craft work too which I am sure must take them ages to complete .We saw one man carving a wooden plaque that was very intricate. May God go with them .

Dwarf martial arts sounds kind of interesting!

Everybody has to earn a living somehow and performing at Dwarf Empire probably beats some other things. Don't like it? Don't go.

i want to go and visit how to go and how much is the entry fees how can i go there

Tell it to Steven Hawking. A person's physical stature does not limit his/her potential for work that does not rely on his/her physical stature (e.g., English teaching, as well as physics). The cultural attitude that those who are discriminated against because they do not fit the culturally desired norm should be outcast or should be provided for by special environments that can be sold as entertainment venues to those who will not deal with their own prejudices is a cultural attitude that perpetuates discrimination against all who are 'different'. The problem here, as elsewhere, is a matter of dehumanizing those who are 'different' - prejudicial culture that regiments anything that deviates from its standards, rather than dealing with the prejudice itself. Why not have a theme park within which 'foreigners', with all their funny habits, can be kept, so that they do not disturb the 'normality' of cultural prejudices? Actually, there could be many: one for 'black people', one for Tibetans, one for Japanese, one for gay people, one for Han Chinese people who have given up their 'traditional' clothing for 'western-style' clothing (e.g., the great majority of Chinese, over the past century or so) - in fact we could subdivide and subdivide until nothing was left but mutual nonrecognition. All these would help to maintain the narrow identities of 'normality' that can be relied upon to advance support the cultural attitudes that promote the continuing inability of people to recognize each other as human, and to celebrate and accept their differences - not as entertainment items, no matter how 'cute', but as full human beings. How different is all this from apartheid?

This effort to maintain prejudice can, of course, be profitable to those who invest in it, and convenient for social engineers and political elites who want to maintain an elite power status by reliance on it.

The place is an insult to our common humanity and a spotlight on cultural attitudes of exclusion. Those who find that they enjoy such displays should take a good look at the nature of the culture that has formed them so narrowly. Cultures change; cultures have always changed; cultures are presently changing and will continue to do so; there is nothing sacred about cultural attitudes. Our common humanity is an ongoing project, and those who imagine they are not part of such a project are simply contributing their own blindness to it, and limiting themselves in the process. It's not the 'dwarves' who are the problem, its the people who will not accept them as within the boundaries of 'us'.

As the parent of one of the smallest people alive, I think I can tell you that this issue is a lot more complex than most of you realize. I agree with some of what the more thoughtful posters here are saying, Alien in particular seems to have a really good grasp on the underlying issue. However, even his comments are made somewhat in a vacuum. The fact is that we DO live in an imperfect world. People at a very base genetic level still have tendencies to ostracize those who are different, and to use the troubles or disabilities of others as a way of propping up their own faulty egos. That doesn't make them evil.....just human. Of course we should strive for a better system, but in the meantime, we need to make sure we aren't actually causing more individual suffering through our demands for a politically correct world.

My son, who is 25 years old, 40 inches tall and weighs 41 lbs has spent the last two years torn between two less-than-perfect choices: putting himself out into the public world, where he often is the subject of staring, pointing, giggling whispers and sometimes outright ridicule; and staying home, playing video games and limiting his contact with people to some minor internet chatting and interacting with his parents. Last month he was encouraged by a counselor to apply for a job at a local six-flags, where he will be a featured player in a temporary haunted house they run. He'll dress as a clown-doll, and then jump up and scare people who don't realize he is alive (he will be safely behind a railing away from the 'customers').

At first, I was worried about his taking a job that 'takes advantage' of his difference. But he seemed to want to try it, and after the first night of rehearsal, he came home as excited as I have seen him in many months.

So, what I am saying, is that we need to leave this in the hands of the people actually affected as much as possible. While it may seem distasteful to us to see a large group of dwarves being put on public display, to them it may be one of the more important and positive parts of their lives. The ability to interact with others, to gain some sense of self-worth may be so overwhelmingly positive to them that it more than makes up for the negatives also associated with the situation.

I know that I have personally dried many of my son's tears (and held back a few of my own) as the result of BOTH of the initial choices that he has had to make, staying home and remaining hidden and safe but alone, and stepping into society and experiencing both the joy of friends and the pain of callous strangers. You can see my son and those who share his Syndrome at www.primordialdwarfism.com

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