In 1904, Coney Island created a “Lilliputia” miniature metropolis for 300 small people to live in as curious, gawking visitors wandered in their midst. In 2009, more than a hundred years later, a similar amusement park opened in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province in southern China.
No special skills are necessary for performers at Kingdom of the Little People—no acrobatic training or dancing experience is needed.
“There are only three requirements to work here,” creator Cheng Mingjing told ABC’s Nightline soon after its opening. “No infectious diseases, no one older than 50, and no one taller than 4 feet 3.”
At Kingdom of the Little People, a cast of entertainers and staffers exclusively shorter than 51 centimeters dance and sing in exotic outfits for twice-daily shows. They play Arabian dancers and knights, kings and fairies; musicians serenade the audience and circus acrobats wow with stunts like tightrope walking and eyelid weight lifting; men in tutus dance to “Swan Lake,” and a “Dwarf King” rules over his mini-empire.
This community of 100-odd Chinese little people ranging in age from 19 to 49 live together in dorms with specially designed amenities for their small statures, sharing meals in a communal dining hall. Visitors to the park can watch their performances on a terraced stage and tour the whimsical, mushroom-like structures of the “kingdom” where they work and pretend to live.
The park was a $14 million project built by average-sized Chinese entrepreneur and real-estate businessman Chen Mingjing in 2009. “I hope this 'kingdom' can help them live better lives. They can spend the rest of their lives here if they like,” he told China Daily.
Five years after its launch, the theme park unsurprisingly has collected fire from all sides. Human rights groups like Handicap International and Little People of America have attacked its exploitative nature, an accusation shared by prominent, short-statured actor Warwick Davis. “What’s happening in China is segregation, it’s exploitation,” Davis said on an episode of An Idiot Abroad. It’s difficult not to liken it to the shameful displays of so-called freak shows that toured Europe and America in circuses, human zoos, and Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” exhibits in the early 20th century.
“What is the difference between it and a zoo?” a spokesman for Little People of America asked The New York Times.
But the Kingdom of the Little People’s creator and its residents have convincingly argued that the park provides the only opportunity for acceptance and economic prosperity available in China. The workers are treated respectfully and are able to earn a self-reliant living. They make a monthly salary of between 1,000 and 3,000 Yuan, or $160 to $480, along with free room and board. Performers speak of an equality and acceptance in the park that isn’t practiced in the outside community.
“I never realized that there were so many people like me until I came here,” one young dancer told a Vice crew who went to the park this year to report on the daily life of its performers.
“When we used to go out in the world, we’d be made fun of,” a 23-year-old performer said. “[T]hat would really hurt our confidence.”
With social and economic necessity trumping political correctness, the Kingdom of the Little People paints a broader picture of China’s treatment of its disabled population—a group some in the dwarf community identify as part of—and the discouraging prospects they face. In 2013, Human Rights Watch issued a report saying that nearly 40 percent of the estimated 83 million disabled Chinese are illiterate due to schools’ rampant discrimination against disabled children.
Today, little people continue to be used for entertainment in ways that draw condemnation around the world. In Mexico, crowds gather to watch dwarf bullfighters taunt their calves with red capes for pay of $50 to $100. In the U.S., dwarf tossing has been condemned as a cruel excuse for a sport.
But participants in these activities often defend themselves and the spectacle they provide. “If a little person can fight a bull, he can do anything,” one bullfighting dwarf said of his chosen profession. “That’s what we’re trying to prove.”
In China, Chen hopes to expand his mini-kingdom as popularity grows, shooting for a staff of 1,000 dwarfs. Six months after the grand opening, the managers were already receiving three or four job requests from little people seeking employment. “Under the current social situation in China, they really will not be able to find a better employment situation,” Chen’s assistant told The New York Times.