In an amusement park in southern China visitors pay to watch people with a growth disorder dress up, sing and dance.
by REMKO TANIS
in HEIQIAOMU, Yunnan, China
,,Welcome everyone from Big People Nation!'' Aqi shouts from the stage to his audience of two thousand Chinese. Being eighty centimeters tall, Aqi is the shortest resident of the Kingdom of the Dwarfs, an amusement park in southern China where eighty short people perform twice daily for, well, from their perspective, tall people.
The show starts. An army of twelve dwarfs marches down the stairs from their mushroom shaped homes to the open air stage. They wear yellow/black military uniforms, plastic toy helmets and carry plastic toy swords and shields. The army's general dons a big pair of Ray Ban sunglasses.
Then seven angels descend: little people dressed up in white dresses with pink wings attached to their backs. They are followed by a group of performers in black suits: the civil servants of, as they call it, the Kingdom's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Closing the ranks are little buddhist monks.
Once they are all in position, the sound system is being cranked up to the max. Heavy electro-metal drowns out the place while, at the top of the stairs, the King of the Dwarfs appears. His yellow gown and the red, plastic diamonds in his crown reflect the bright light of the sun. The King, 81 centimeters tall, glares majestically over his subjects and the audience.
Change in music. Five women and three men, all dressed in a white ballet tutu, dance a deliberately humorous version of the Swan's Lake.
Then, two small men wearing only leather pants stand on their hands before showcasing their break dancing skills. Then it's ringmaster Aqi again, with a song about how grateful he is that the big people have come out to watch the little people perform.
By that time, King Wu Zi Ming (44) has long retreated to his small palace where he sits on his throne of not even half a meter high. Two vases filled with flowers flank his seat. A small guard stands at the door. The king's only outstanding duty is not until the end of the show, when he has to get out there once more to wave goodbye to the audience.
Amusement park Kingdom of the Dwarfs is almost too absurd to be true. Almost, because the brain child of business man Cheng Ming Jing is very, very real at a 45 minutes drive from the provincial capital of Kunming in southern China's Yunan province.
King Wu has decided to allow an audience into his mushroom shaped palace. He is not interested in debating whether it is politically or morally correct to have small people parade around for entertainment. ,,We are not being mistreated or exploited here'', says Wu. ,,For us, this park means we finally have a full time job. Before I arrived here, I roamed the streets for ten years, begging. I wouldn't get more than two cents from people. Now, I have an employment contract which doesn't expire until twenty years from now. I'm making two thousand yuan a month.''
Wu moved to the park with his wife, who is 1.67 meters tall, and their two children. Performer Yang Li Chun (1.29 meters, 30 years old) found her husband here in the amusement park. Her title is Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Dwarfs now.
Yang: ,,I had a job at a factory in Beijing when I saw this online ad for a position at the Kingdom of the Dwarfs. At first I doubted. Being shorter than others, you develop a strong sense of when you need to protect yourself from people who might want to take advantage of you. This is often a topic of discussions in online fora where I chat with other short people. After more members of these fora said they had heard about this place, I decided to phone the manager of the amusement park. That conversation convinced me this was not a scam. Her voice sounded very trust worthy, so I decided to move here.''
Jobs at the Kingdom are only open to people shorter than 1.30 centimeters. ,,People who are taller won't have any trouble finding employment elsewhere'', explains the park's owner Cheng. Five years ago he developed the first ideas about the park.
Cheng: ,,At that time I met a few short people in the train. They made me realize how difficult life must be for their parents. Dwarfs are equipped with perfectly normal IQ's, but because their bodies do not grow further, they were born to be discriminated against.''
The Kingdom of the Dwarfs opened last fall. Cheng currently employs 108 short people. He wants to grow that number to almost a thousand in a few years time. ,,Building this park is a charitable act'', he says. ,,Short people can be amongst their own kind here. There is nobody they have to look up to. Instead of begging and being victims of discrimination, they live here with a job and a good salary. The Kingdom of the Dwarfs is in no way some kind of human zoo. It is my contribution to better human rights for small people.''
But the ticket fee of eighty yuan each visitor pays doesn't hurt Cheng either. His employees earn anything from twelve hundred yuan a month for the civil servants to up to two thousand yuan for the king. On average the park is visited by hundreds of people a day. Currently, the field trip season for schools, that number rises to a few thousand a day.
Shao Tian Ping (24) is working on her mascara inside the mushroom castle which serves as the dressing room for the performers of the Dwarf Ministry of Culture. Shao has been with the park for six months now. Before coming here, she sold school books in Guizhou province.
,,I want to find a boyfriend and stay here for the rest of my life'', Shao says. ,,It's a nice place. I'm amongst people of my own kind. Finally I don't feel the pressure anymore of others staring down at me. Wherever I went in my hometown, whatever I did, I was always scared of people looking at me. Whenever I had to climb stairs, for example, I'd wait until there was no one around. I didn't want anyone to see how I struggle to simply climb stairs.''
For Shao those days are over now. ,,Here in the park I have no fear of people laughing at me or judging me'', she continues while putting a hat with two pink butterflies sticking out of it on her head. ,,Sometimes, all of us will go in to town together to shop. I don't care people staring at us then, because we're there as a group. Now I'm proud to say: this is who I am. Period.''
The morning's audience has left the park. It's time for lunch. The performers take some time to chill out in the shade of the souvenir shops. They chat, laugh, fool around: the overall atmosphere is extremely relaxed.
Some of them walk down a path towards their actual houses which are next to the parking lot. Here, the park's employees live in apartments where the light switches have been lowered to their heights, just like the sinks. On the outside, a stone facade makes it look like they live in a cave.
Wei Wu (52), who manages the park, is referred to as a 'normal person' by the short people of the Kingdom, because she is of 'normal' height. ,,There are over 120 thousand dwarfs in China'', Wei says. ,,We get at least five applications a week of short people who want to work here. And they are all welcome, as long as they over 18 years old, shorter than 1.30 meters and have no infectious diseases. We want to expand, so I'd say to all short people both in China and abroad: come on over. There's always work here.''