When people travel abroad, they often fly thousands of miles to engage in the very same activities they would at home. Western hotels, bars and coffee shops bustle with tourists who limit their experience in a country to its most cosmopolitan cities.
While studying in China in 2015, I thought it might be beneficial to take a different path and see something that could only be seen in China. I wanted it to be something that struck at the heart of the social, economic and cultural differences. That something turned out to be the Kingdom of Little People (“Xiao Ren Guo”)- a theme park outside Kunming that is staffed entirely by “dwarves”. Created as a sanctuary of sorts, the park has become the focal point of fierce debate. Its advocates claim it empowers little people and its critics claim it exploits them.
The Red Cross Society of China estimates that the country is home to roughly 8 million little people, many of whom face ridicule, workplace discrimination, and even physical violence. The Kingdom of Little People seeks to remedy these problems. The park was conceived in 2009 by real estate mogul Chen Ming Jing. He envisioned the park as a refuge where little people could find a sense of safety and community. Chen turned to Wu Wei, a teacher from Chengdu, to handle recruitment and park management. Today, the park houses around 100 individuals who, in addition to a refuge, are finding romance and gainful employment.
It’s designed to resemble a village more than a traditional theme park. It sits atop a large hill, next to an ecological butterfly garden. This gives the park an esoteric, enchanted air. Visitors stroll through rows of tiny, mushroom-shaped houses, where they can meet and take pictures with the park’s performers. Performances are held twice a day and include musical ballads, acrobatics and mock combat. At the show’s conclusion, a dwarven “emperor” appears and imparts a somber message to the audience about the abuse and harassment that little people in China endure.
When the Kingdom opened, word circulated on GoKunming, a website geared toward expatriates living in the Yunnan province. Despite its benign ideology, the Kingdom of Little People still caters to many of the stereotypes one may have about people born with dwarfism. Many of the site’s users claimed that the park was practically a zoo, making a spectacle of those born with special needs. Today that same opinion is shared by groups like Little People of America (LPA) and actors like Warwick Davis, who criticized the park on the British television show “An Idiot Abroad”.
A brief look at Davis’ filmography, however, reveals a disturbing truth: Little people are not portrayed much differently in Western societies. Little people in Hollywood often find themselves relegated to supporting roles in comedies and fantasy films. They rarely find an opportunity to show their talent as bonafide actors. The mega-popular fantasy-drama “Game of Thrones” broke new ground when it cast Peter Dinklage, an actor born with dwarfism, as a lead character. Dinklage quickly became a fan favorite as the quick-witted Tyrion Lannister- a wealthy noble who uses his wit to combat some of the more battle-hardened members of the cast. The show is Dinklage’s break out role, but whether his success will open doors for other little people is yet to be seen.
Meanwhile, the Xiao Ren Guo’s doors are open to any little person between 18 and 40, and while the controversy continues, so do the shows.