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.
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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