In the empire of the dwarves
Xiaoxiao, 'princess' of the Dwarf Kingdom, is making tepid cups of Nescafe in the tiny living room of a crooked mushroom house. It has a pastel pink fake chimney. She has long, gold-tinted, wavy hair and her cheeks dimple when she smiles. She could be taken for a 'mature for her age' 12-year-old, but she is actually 20 and graduated from high school in her hometown of Harbin, far away in China's frigid north.
'I heard about this place through the internet,' she says, adding that at first she was suspicious, but - after asking other 'little people' - decided it was worth a try. 'It's not easy for people like us to get work. Some of us end up sleeping under bridges or in public toilets, and we're often treated cruelly in entertainment shows.'
The Empire of the Little People - a more accurate translation of the name of one of China's most recently opened (and oddest) theme parks - touts itself as a kind of refuge for a section of Chinese society that for the most part lives in shame and humiliation. Around 40 minutes' drive from Kunming , capital of Yunnan province , in the hills close to the sprawling Dianchi lake, the 'empire' marked its July 1 soft opening with the crowning of a dwarf king. So far, nearly 90 'little people' have arrived and the 'empire' expects that, when it is fully populated, the population there will number 600.
'Not all of them can fit in,' says empire manager Wu Wei, a retired school principal from Chengdu in Sichuan province . 'Some of them have been isolated for too long. Their families are ashamed of them and don't let them out. In some cases, especially the girls, they haven't even been to school. This place is a community and they need to learn to adapt to being in a group. Some can't.'
Wu is the brains behind the Empire of the Little People, which is built on land appropriated by Yunnan Botai Creative Investing. 1n 2006, the company was given governmental approval to use the rural land as a Butterfly Ecological Protection Park, and in 2007 Wu - then still in Chengdu - began looking for dwarves who might be willing to band together and form a dwarf theme park there that could also serve as a refuge for what are essentially outcasts throughout China.
But, by the September 21 hard launch of the empire, the attraction was already eliciting heated debate on Go Kunming (www.gokunming. com), a listings website aimed largely at the city's burgeoning expat community - most of them drawn by the Spring City's temperate climate and inexpensive Chinese language tuition fees. Some postings compared the new theme park to a medieval pageant, with one irate contributor lamenting: 'When I first heard this I pictured obscure freak shows from a hundred years ago. Pay the entrance fee and you can watch these people perform.'
However, the dwarves at the theme park all thought it was the best thing that had ever happened to them. Wen Yi, a native of the southwestern province of Sichuan, and now an employee of the empire's Department of Foreign Affairs, says: 'We're a community here, we're all equal, this is a place where we all fit in.'
Xiaoxiao agrees, adding: 'Nobody here cares what education you have or what experience, or how big you are.' She says the twice daily variety shows at 10.30am and 3.30pm for crowds of big people - at present numbering around 300 daily - are a small price to pay for a guaranteed monthly salary, food and lodgings and the company of people her own size.
'Everyone here receives 1,000 yuan a month,' says Wu. 'If that doesn't sound like much, the average university graduate in Kunming only receives around 700-800 yuan.' She adds that the empire has some requirements - all candidates must be 1.29 metres or shorter and be between 18 and 40 years old.
According to Wu - and several dwarf workers confirmed - families who are worried that their children will be exploited or treated cruelly are offered expenses to travel with their child and visit the theme park before their child takes a job.
The only problem so far, she says, has been the occasional fight in the nearby village of Heiqiaomu, where the sudden influx of dwarves has not been tolerated by everyone.
'The little people are used to dealing with being pushed around and usually win the fights,' she says, adding that the empire does not tolerate violence and one extreme offender has already been banished.
At the afternoon variety show, Xiaoxiao is the perfect compere, introducing the show and various acts in Chinese, and in accented but perfectly intelligible English. Predictably tacky in nature - and in some cases lacking finesse - the outdoor show of solo love songs, acrobatics, kung fu prowess and even a hip-hop act gradually wins over the audience. By the show's end, the big people are running to the stage and presenting the dwarf performers with roses - available from a dwarf vendor sitting at a tiny table and chair on the sidelines.
'We're happy to be among our own kind here,' says Xiaoxiao. 'Please tell all the little people in your country, they are welcome to come and join us.'
I said I would.