If you head to Kunming, in Yunnan, China, you’re in for a big surprise. No, it’s not the teddy bears’ picnic; it’s something altogether weirder, especially in this day and age. Known as the Kingdom of the Little People, it is a theme park which is dedicated to one thing and one thing only. Little people. Literally.
Yes, this modern equivalent of the freak show is up and running in China and is perfectly legal. It’s an attraction which is starting to gain a lot more visitors as time goes on, after failing to generate much interest right after opening. It is mostly students from the surrounding area who come to visit – after all, it’s so nearby, and they have plenty of time on their hands. This is precisely the kind of attraction that students would love.
Naturally, there’s not a lot of political correctness going on. The park perpetuates some silly stereotypes about people with dwarfism, and some say that it is exploitative by nature. Guests are not frowned upon for laughing at the performers; in fact, it is encouraged that they have a good time. Several of the performers who have been interviewed by outsiders have talked about seeing members of the public laughing right in their faces.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t having a good time. As you’re about to find out, the weirdness of this park extends down through several levels, and the debate about ethics is not exactly straightforward. Strap in: this ride is about to get weird.
15. They Live in Tiny Houses
The housing for the performers is specially designed due to the fact that everyone in the park is under a certain height. This means that housing and furniture at normal heights wouldn’t be as comfortable for them. As a result, the park’s owner had a contractor come in to make sure that everything was reduced down to a more fitting size. Insultingly, however, they have to pretend during their performances that they live in little mushroom-sized houses. The customers are supposed to think that they live in these fairy-tale-style homes because, of course, they’re so little. It was probably too expensive to build a working series of hobbit holes, or we imagine they would have gone with that idea instead. Their own homes aren’t exactly much to write home about, but at least they are specially adapted to their needs. The mushrooms are designed only to make visitors laugh.
14. There’s A Height Restriction For Workers
If you want to work at the Kingdom of Little People, you have to be a little person yourself. That’s a given, but there’s even a restriction on height which means not all people with the dwarfism gene might be able to get in. You need to be less than 51 inches, 4 ft 3, or 130 cm, tall. That’s quite a specific figure, and we would be interested to find out where it came from. What if someone is 51.5 inches tall? Do they get rejected immediately? Apparently the management team (who are normal-sized and don’t live on the premises) get a lot of applications on a regular basis. Plenty of people with dwarfism in China are happy to go and work and live at the Kingdom of Little People. You might not expect there would be so many of them in China, but that is largely because people who are seen to have a disability are normally preferred to be kept out of sight.
13. They Put On Daily Performances Of Odd Things
Everyday, at two different times, the performers put on a show. This is to entice visitors and give them something specific to look at rather than simply the performers walking around in their daily lives. The performances tend to be a little on the odd side. They might act out scenes from fairy tales, or perform hip-hop style dances to music. Sometimes they put on a ballet, and sometimes they act out Qigong. This is a holistic system of movements, postures, and breathing which is used to balance chi, or life energy. You can kind of think of it as a Chinese yoga. Which is why it’s pretty strange that this would be one of the disciplines chosen for the shows, rather than, say, a traditional form of theatre. But we’re not one to judge, considering that we wouldn’t have gone with the idea of a dwarf theme park either.
12. There’s A Dwarf King Or Emperor
Can it possibly get stranger? Yes, it can! There’s a performer who is referred to as the Dwarf King, or as it could also be translated, the Dwarf Emperor. This man is only 1 metre tall, or 3.3 feet. He is designated the in-performance leader of the others, and wears a gold silk cape to show his status. He also rides around on a three-wheeled motorcycle during the shows. There’s a whole bunch of sentences we never imagined having to type. There’s also a Dwarf Empress or Queen, though it’s not clear whether they actually have any relation to one another, and even a so-called Parliament who are supposed to make all of the decisions. Of course, it’s all just play-acting, and these are the roles that the management decided they would best fill. Though if you were asked to play the king, ride around on a motorcycle, and wear a gold cape, you’d probably start getting a bit too big for your boots outside of performances as well.
11. The Performers Actually Like It
Funnily enough, the performers actually seem pleased with their lot, for the most part. One of them was interviewed and said, “I don’t care in the slightest if people come here to laugh at us. If they see how happy we are in spite of everything, maybe they will see how small their own problems are.” There seems to be a general consensus that it’s better for them all to be together in a community of their own, than to be isolated across China and feeling alone. “As small people we are used to being pushed around and exploited by big people. But here there aren’t any big people and everything we do is for us,” adds spokesman Fu Tien. Well, fair enough then. Many of the performers have also talked about feeling lonely before they found themselves in the Kingdom, surrounded by people who they at last had something in common with.
10. They Have Their Own Police And Fire Service
The community is actually completely self-sufficient. Apart from having security guards who are of normal height, to deal with the visitors in case anything should happen, everyone in the park has dwarfism. There is a police force and even a fire brigade made up of the inhabitants, so they really don’t need any outside interference at all. From the perspective of the performers, it’s less of a theme park and more of a small town. They all live together and work together, and the visitors that pass through every day are merely a source of income. It’s pretty nice that they have managed to achieve a community of this kind, where they can feel that they are amongst their own tribe. On the other hand, however, it’s a shame that the only way that they could establish it was through exploitation. There has been much discussion about whether one justifies the other.
9. There Are No Infectious Diseases
There are three main requirements to get a job at the Kingdom. First is the height restriction, and second is that no one can be over the age of 50. That makes a little sense, since people with dwarfism can expect a shorter lifespan than the average, and those coming from poorer areas may see that cut even further. But the final requirement is that no one must suffer from an infectious disease. That’s a bit of an odd requirement to have, and especially one to speak openly about. Normally you wouldn’t want someone to be able to make all of your other workers sick, granted. But there are plenty of infectious diseases which can be controlled and contained with the proper practices – HIV, for example. One has to suspect that the reason the management of the park are so eager to shout this one from the rafters is that there might be some lingering suspicion about dwarfism being infectious in itself in China.
8. They’re Earning More Than Most Locals
Why have so many people with dwarfism come from all around China to live and work in this park? There had to be an incentive, and that was the lucrative wages they are earning. They get their housing guaranteed as part of their payment, with no need to pay rent or buy the land. They also earn around $147 a month on top of this. While it doesn’t sound like much, this is actually a lot more than most people in that region of China would earn. It’s a poor region without enough work to go around, so for the performers, this is a shot at a better and more comfortable life. They also get extras on top of their wages, including counselling and extracurricular activities which they don’t have to pay to join. Most of them would not have been able to earn a living before this, so it’s a good deal.
7. The Owner Wants It To Grow
So far, there are over 100 performers living and working in the Kingdom of Little People. For the owners of the park, however, that isn’t yet enough. They want to keep on expanding their workforce and growing the number of attractions which are available at the park, hopefully turning it into a more popular destination which people will want to visit from all around the world. Their eventual goal is to have somewhere between 800 and 1000 little people working in their empire. This is certainly a lofty figure, but there is no doubt that there are enough individuals with dwarfism living in China to make up the numbers. The question is rather whether the park can sustain this many people, and whether there are enough who would be willing to leave their current lives behind and travel to this region to stay for good. It could be a big ask.
6. Discrimination Is Huge In China
Sadly, life isn’t good for most little people who live in China. There’s no wonder that they want to come and work at the Kingdom of Little People when you understand what they have to put up with in their lives normally. “They can’t work anywhere, they are disabled people, so we have a village for them to live and be happy in. No one would hire a dwarf,” reads one of the comments about the park. “When we used to go out in the world, we’d be made fun of,” one of the performers said. “[T]hat would really hurt our confidence.” Nearly 40% of the 83 million disabled people in China are illiterate. This is just one statistic demonstrating the discrimination that exists in the country, where disabilities normally result in being treated like less than a second-class citizen. “Under the current social situation in China, they really will not be able to find a better employment situation,” the owner’s assistant adds.
5. Warwick Davis Isn’t Impressed
When Warwick Davis, the acclaimed actor with dwarfism, visited the Kingdom of Little People for the show An Idiot Abroad, he was not at all impressed. “It’s like going back to the days of the freak show again, isn’t it really?” he said. “I mean, they’re all in there together and you’re going in there to gawp at them basically.” Even though his co-host pointed out that the performers were smiling and seemed happy, Warwick was not convinced. “It’s segregation,” he said. “It’s exploitation. Seriously.” If there was ever a gauge for which side of the argument to come down on, Warwick Davis would be a good lead to follow. Making a living as an actor despite his dwarfism means he is uniquely placed to understand the challenges of finding gainful employment, as well as balancing entertainment and exploitation. Alongside Peter Dinklage, he is one of the stars normalizing dwarfism and helping others to see that a physical condition does not reflect a mental difference.
4. They Don’t Have To Have Any Training
The great thing for employees here is that they don’t need to have any special training to join the park. It would be very difficult to find the kind of numbers needed if everyone had to be trained in acrobatics or have experience in performing dance. Once they are hired and they have moved in, training is provided on-site. There are a number of set routines which are already set up, and everyone finds their place in one of these routines after they have done enough to perform in public. There are plans to introduce further new routines as time goes on, in order to ensure that there is always something fresh to see. Once the Kingdom reaches the size that it was planned, there will doubtless be plenty more performances to see on a daily basis as well as special shows at certain times of year to celebrate events.
3. It’s Considered To Be A Charity
Chen Mingjing is a self-made entrepreneur who paid for and opened the Kingdom of Little People with his own money. He said at the time, “I hope this ‘kingdom’ can help them live better lives.” He was inspired to do something about the social status of the people with dwarfism that he saw sleeping rough on the streets or begging at railway stations. He views the effort as a charitable project, aiming to improve the lives of others rather than to turn a profit. Indeed, the park has not broken even since opening. His work so far had apparently not been fulfilling enough for him despite the millions he had earned; at the age of 44, he gave $4 million just to build the park, let alone to fund the continuous running costs. If he truly wanted to be charitable, however, it’s worth wondering why he asks the performers to put on a show at all.
2. They Perform A Crazy Swan Lake
There’s a crazy version of the Swan Lake ballet which the performers put on, which has to be the oddest of all the shows. The parody sees male dwarfs dressing up in pink tutus and tights and wiggling around on the stage. “The first time I wore that, I felt really awkward,” said Chen Ruan, 20. “But then I got up on stage and people liked it. People were applauding and I felt proud.” From Chen Ruan’s perspective, this is definitely a better option than his previous life. Before he came to the park, the only job he could find was to collect refuse with his parents. Performing on stage and receiving applause from an enthralled audience has to feel a lot better than that, even if you have to look stupid to do it. The Swan Lake piece is one of the favourites for visitors, who often tear up laughing at the spectacle.
1. There Are Plans For Tiny Everything
Chen has big plans for the Kingdom of Little People and how it will eventually end up looking. He wants to spend a total of $15 million on developing the project, creating a small universe in miniature form. Alongside the performers and the miniature homes, he wants to plant miniature fruit trees and buy tiny dogs to go along with them. He wants to build guest cabins where normal-sized visitors can stay for the night, and even transform a BMW into a spacecraft which will deliver performers to the 230-foot-high stage every day. Needless to say, it’s a project with a lot of vision, though visitors to the park say that it falls a little short of expectations. Rather than a riot of fairy tale colour, it is currently a bit dull and grey, with the daily performances a spectacle of ridicule rather than of talent. There’s still a long way to go.
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