In an imperial yellow coat and stylish shades, China’s dwarf emperor toddles from his tiny mushroom house to rapturous applause and a welcoming volley of ear-splitting techno music.
Barely 1m tall, the mini-monarch squats proudly on a royal stool as his court of dwarves and midgets — dressed as fairies, warriors, cooks and monks — regale hundreds of paying visitors with a high-pitched, syrupy ballad.
China’s imperial days may be long gone, but this scaled-down version lives on at Dwarf Empire (矮人主題樂園), a popular attraction at a theme park that opened in September in southwestern Yunnan Province.
The “empire” — part of a butterfly park — has quickly become the site’s main draw thanks to the popularity of dwarf performances that would likely evoke howls of protest in the West as an exploitative freak show.
It includes a mini version of Swan Lake and a male dwarf in leather pants and a punk hairdo hand-walking and gyrating his hips to thunderous hip-hop.
But the more than 100 dwarves — known in China as xiao ai ren, (小矮人) or “little small people” — who range in height from 79cm to 1.3m, dismiss suggestions that the park demeans them.
Several call it a haven in a country where their kind often face harassment and mistreatment and rarely get to mix with like-sized comrades.
“Before coming here, most of us faced discrimination. But here, we are equal and respected. We have our dignity,” said Ou Jielin, 24, who sold clothing in the southern province of Guangdong before coming to work at the park.
Nestled in rugged hills about 40km west of the Yunnan capital Kunming, the park is the brainchild of flamboyant businessman Chen Mingjing, who made his fortune in electronics, real estate and other ventures.
His hair slicked back and wearing a high-collared Chinese jacket not unlike that of the dwarf emperor, Chen said the idea came to him after he encountered midgets on a train.
“We felt their lives were hard and bad, so we wanted to build a great place for them to live and a platform for them to work,” said Chen.
Employees get room, board and free English lessons — to chat with a hoped-for flood of overseas visitors. Few can get past “Hello,” however, except for one who introduced himself as being from the empire’s “Foreign Ministry.”
Altruism aside, dwarves are good business.
On a recent day, Chen’s empire heaved with hundreds of mostly respectful teen students from Kunming, cheering wildly and posing for photos with dwarves.
Chen is expanding the “empire,” which now consists of more than a dozen mushroom homes from which the dwarves emerge and descend to their performance area.
A nearby hill is topped by a fortress-like emperor’s “castle” opening later this year. New dwarves arrive weekly.
“We will build a team of 800 to 1,000 dwarves and make it the biggest wonderland for dwarves in the world,” Chen proclaimed.
Dwarves acknowledge the park could be seen as demeaning in the West, but say it is a step up for “little people” in China, whose opportunities in life are sometimes quite limited.
Chinese dwarves need to be tough, said Pi Fasi, who faced bullying and was even robbed in his previous job driving a three-wheeled transport vehicle. He says he has fought to defend himself his whole life against schoolmates and even adults.
“Some would even be crying after I used my fists and legs,” he said proudly.
Fittingly, he is now the emperor’s personal bodyguard, vowing to “stay at the park until I am too old to work.”
Homesickness hurts, but life with fellow dwarves has changed the fate of people like Ou, who fell in love with another of the dwarf employees and hopes to marry.
“I feel this is our destiny. We came from different places in China but have come together to live as a family. We are all very happy,” she said.
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