Monday, April 19, 2010

The Kingdom of Dwarves

In China, it's a small world after all...

KUNMING, China — The casting call went out across China earlier this year, in newspapers and online: Entertainers needed for a new theme park, no special skills required.

Applicants should be 18-40 years old, from any part of the country. The only stipulation? To work at the Kingdom of Dwarves performers must be shorter than 4' 3".

Since the park opened this summer in the mountains outside of Kunming, about 80 little people have signed on. Twice a day, they take to the stage to entertain smatterings of Chinese tourists by singing, dancing and performing slapstick comedy in the model of ubiquitous Chinese television variety shows. The dwarve are not, for the most part, accomplished singers, comedians or Qi Gong masters. The “king” is a 40-year-old dwarf and the shortest performer on the payroll, a tough-looking, silent character dressed in gold silk pajamas, who cruises away on his three-wheeled motorcycle after the show.

They are on stage because they are different, and in China, being different often means being a spectacle.

“I think this is a very unusual place, and quite funny,” said Li Ximing, a visitor from Kunming.

To many around the world, the very idea of putting people on stage to perform simply because they don’t look like everyone else is cringe-inducing. But even though they must dress up in frilly princess and caped warrior costumes befitting small children and dance for tourists, performers at the bizarre theme park see this place as a haven from the overwhelming discrimination they face in China at large.

“Back home, strangers will stare at and they look down on us,” said Yang Lichun of Beijing, who moved across the country to work at the park this summer with her fiance. “If we can even find jobs at home, we have to work harder than everyone else to prove ourselves.”

This is not a protective commune founded by dwarves, as some media reports have insisted. The performers do not live in the tiny concrete mushroom houses that serve as a backdrop for their shows, but in nearby dormitories. It is a for-profit theme park run by a Yunnan province-based venture capital company. The workers simply see this as dagong — the modern Chinese notion of migrant work, leaving your hometown for a job elsewhere. Tens of millions do it for factory and construction work; these workers came here to put on a show for tourists who want to see little people.

Disabled and different people are often shunned in China, and hiring discrimination based on physical appearance is widely accepted. Still, parks where the amusement is people are a dicey topic, especially given a shady past rife with stories of China’s ethnic minorities being rounded up and displayed in the mode of circus freak shows.

But to hear the workers tell it, there’s no better place to be right now — the underlying social attitude actually made the workers want to come to the remote park, and want to stay.

Yi Shaobo, 28, used to work in an auto parts factory in his native Wuhan, 1,200 miles east of here. He doesn’t earn a lot more at the Kingdom of Dwarves, but he prefers it.

“I didn’t come here for the money. I came because it made me happy,” said Yi. “People at the factory had to help me with my job, and I wanted to be independent.”

Performers earn between $120 and $175 per month, depending on their role. It’s about as much as a factory worker earns, and more than most could make back home. More importantly, the little people here say they have found camaraderie and respect they don’t often get in the outside world. Inside the Kingdom of Dwarves (the park’s own translation), because the performers are all small, nobody is judged on height. They joke and tease about dating and about falling in love. The gossip has it that eight little people already have met mates here.

The park, which sits about an hour away from central Kunming, is tucked away in the mountains, inside a larger venue devoted to butterflies. The performers live there, isolated from city life — both a good and a bad thing for most. It’s clear the honeymoon phase won’t last forever, especially as tourist numbers are low so far. Still, the performers hope for the best.

“I’ll work here as long as this park is open,” said Yang.



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