“Before coming here, I was tending cattle, and feeding pigs,” Xiao Cao told me. “I never even knew how to dance.”
“And now, she’s our leading dancer!” laughed Zhang Furong.
Xiao Cao is a dancer. Zhang Furong is a singer. They’re both under 4’3″ tall. They live in, and perform at, The Kingdom of the Dwarfs.
This story isn’t new, I know. But a week after I returned from the kingdom, ready to write a grand tale of the adventure in the kingdom, The New York Times stole my thunder with a full-page piece on the park. I was crushed. How could that rag steal my story, so?
It’s all the fault of Boss Chen. He’s a marketing genius and shameless self-promoter. He’s always up to something. Although he started as a Sichuan headmaster and maths teacher, in 1990 he saw that China was rapidly changing. He quit his iron-rice-bowl academic job, and moved around the country, starting a bunch of businesses, each bigger than the last. At some point, he decided to leap into tourism.
He built a sprawling theme park an hour from southern China’s Kunming, filled with majestic butterfly sculptures, bizarre natural landscapes of paper mache, and packs of butterflies, gorgeous creatures fluttering through the grounds. He called it “The World Ecological Butterfly Park,” and promoted it across Yunnan.
And then all the butterflies died.
Boss Chen lost a fortune. He was surely destroyed. On a train ride, confused about what to do with the now pointless park, he found himself sitting beside a dwarf. He’d never met a dwarf before, but this short chatty fellow was also a locally famous entertainer. And Boss Chen’s entrepreneurial mind started to race.
“I wanted to start a charity,” he claimed to me, years after the fact, “and I thought of the dwarfs. They are very poor and lonely.” He pitched himself as Mother Theresa, but maybe he was more P.T. Barnum.
Boss Chen hired the little entertainer, and asked him to spread the word to his friends. And before long, he was employing 100 dwarfs, dancing and singing two vaudeville shows a day to cheering crowds of Kunming’ers. All of it surrounded by mushroom houses and magical giant tree-shaped buildings.
Here’s a sampling of what you might see, any given day:
See the video from elsewhere:
Back in Beijing, or anywhere really, when I talk about the park, I’m generally met with a horrified reaction. Not too surprising. It reeks of bad taste.
But then you talk to the people working there.
“I didn’t dare look for a job before,” said Xiao Cao. “People might turn me down because of the way I look.” She hid indoors, terrified to leave her house. She was dowdy, and miserable. But now she’s the lead dancer. She glows with confidence. She’s beautiful. She kept smiling at me, flirtatiously. “I am so much happier, now,” she said.
“Every one of us was lonely before coming here,” said Zhang Furong. The money isn’t good — he admitted — but continued that, “working here means much more than money, but self-esteem and happiness.”
“We’re free from discrimination here,” said 3’11” Li Caixia. She filled boxes in Hunan Province before moving to the park. Here, she not only found confidence, but also love. Her boyfriend Chen Wenqing is a former factory worker (and a dwarf) who moved here from Hebei Province. “There is no other place like this, with so many dwarfs gathered together.”
If you like to perform, they’ll teach you to perform. If you’re still too shy, or have two left feet, you can sell hot dogs and sodas, or push a broom, or work security detail.
There used to be many of these parks across China, but gradually they’ve closed down. “There is still one in Fujian province,” Zhang told me, “but it’s small, with about 20 dwarfs.”
He and most everyone else heard about this park through a QQ network, an instant messaging online group set up for Chinese dwarfs to communicate across the country, and almost everyone greeted the news with disbelief.
“Many people advised me not to come here,” said Miss Tianping. “But I still came. And I found a confidence I’d not seen in a long time.”
“My family worried that I might be tricked by the common people,” said Zhang. (“Common people” was how the dwarfs referred to tall folk. They, meanwhile, are referred to as “Little Short People,” or 小矮人.)
But — without fail — everyone raved about how their lives had changed. Confidence, community, friends, and lovers.
“Before, other people were always helping me,” said Zhang. “Now, I’m helping others!”
Four couples have hooked up here, and others have become sex symbols.
“Since coming here, I feel like Yao Ming,” laughed Yi Shaobo, who’s the tallest dwarf in the park, meeting the 4’3″ height limit exactly.
The workdays here are simple: two shows a day, cleaning the park after each show, and rehearsals and classes afterwards. Sure, the audience of families were laughing, but were they laughing at, or with, the actors? It’s hard to say. It could be debated either way. The shows were reminiscent of old vaudeville performances — some singing, dancing, magic, and a fair share of slapstick. They weren’t too different from any other song and dance shows I’ve seen in China, except here the actors were invariably little. Children would buy roses from vendors, and rush up on stage to hand them to their favorite performers. Watching it all, I wasn’t left with a weird freakshow or abuse feeling. I felt uplifted. Everyone — the actors, the visitors, even the janitors — all seemed so happy.
Between shows, Zhang joined us for a banquet lunch. He complained about the restaurant. “I don’t like this place,” he told me.
“Is the food not good?” I asked.
“No. Look at my feet!” I glanced under the table, and his feet were hovering inches above the floor. “Where we live, the chairs are smaller.” Everything — the beds, the tables, are custom made. “We’re much more comfortable there,” he said.
What do you think? Exploitation? Or liberating empowerment? Tell me below…
Kingdom of the Dwarfs (小矮人帝国)
World Ecological Butterfly Park, Heiqiaomu, Kunming
Phone: (0871) 5726239