Day Out at The Kingdom of Little People
Just outside of Kunming city, in the beautiful state of Yunnan in China, there lays an amusement park run by people with dwarfism: The Kingdom of the Little People. Dwarfs work there, live there and have the opportunity to earn some dough during their stay.
Quite understandably, there is a lot of controversy regarding the existence of what critics have called exploitative and a “human zoo”. This is particularly given the fact that short-statured people were used for public amusement in side-shows back in 1800. Even the word “dwarf” can cause offense to some, who prefer the term “little person” or “person of short stature”.
The place itself is not well advertised. Hostels offer a very expensive car to take you 50km down the road, and buses are somewhat impossible to find. But we find one, and after spending three hours circling Kunming, we make it right back to where we started, only to ask for directions at the bank. You can always trust a bank. The lady we approach isn’t sure, so she shouts across to someone else and, before you know it, four or five others are enthusiastically discussing the best way for us to find the little people.
The dwarf village is joined to the butterfly ecological centre (which is pretty bleak in itself) and a dinosaur/dragon land area. There’s also a motorbike show twice daily. I rack my brains for some kind of vague connection between the three, but my imagination simply doesn’t stretch that far.
The site itself has potential, but it looks like the themes or constructions they tried to implement were never finished. There’s an area with sequoia-sized petrified wood optimistically named the Tree House; the castle that is supposed to house dwarf warriors is falling apart; there’s weird machinery just hanging around and areas dug out with nothing in them. Oh, and there’s a zip line.
The place is eerie and mostly deserted. It needs love, a sane approach with regards to ideas and time – lots of time. One part I did like was the mushroom village, which is exactly as it sounds: miniature houses made to look like mushrooms. It’s cute and Alice in Wonderland-like, but I think you are supposed to imagine it’s where the dwarfs live, which is belittling and dumb.
Throughout the day, we don’t really see many little people. One is a cashier in the local shop, and occasionally, a few would appear in clusters giggling together. There’s also a man dressed as a King with a shield and sword I spot roaming around like a blind sheep that has lost its way.
The show itself is the only real attraction (unless, like me, you get sick pleasure out of visiting places that are as bleak as a lonely grey hair on a bald head).
It starts with shitty pop music to gather the crowds, and they even sneak in a few Christmas songs (it’s February). Two dwarfs clamber onto stage and welcome us. I can’t tell if they are compelling or not, because everything is in Chinese, but I eye the crowd and no one seems too intrigued by the speeches.
Soon, the little people start a march from Mushroom Village to the stage in synch with the music, which looks like a hard task for some. The King dwarf is up on centre stage looking more confused than ever, and some of the others are wearing cute matching jumpers, but there’s no clear dress code. About 25 people take their positions and commence a very slow dance with few motions, which might be comparable to light aerobics for the elderly. Meanwhile, the Chinese in the audience are all staring and dribbling popcorn, phones out like guns in battle, videoing every moment. Most people make sure we are a star role in their video too. White people and dwarfs – gosh! What a fun-filled day for their Instagram accounts.
After the slow-motion aerobics, the little people scurry off stage and we are left with one man who sings us two love songs. He sounds okay, but the crowd seems to echo my sense of vague boredom. Next, we have a group of women dancing for us dressed in Indian attire, but the pop song choice doesn’t seem to relate. They potter around the stage and seem uninterested in their own performance; one lady looks severely pissed off as she shakes her hips and sways her dress. There’s a pretty funny version of ‘Gangnam Style’ after that, where everyone is more lively and dressed as gangsters; everyone seems to perk up at this. Finally, a man without dwarfism does some tightrope walking. To add to the mess of it all, an obnoxiously loud tractor keeps rolling back and forth behind the audience.
By the end of the show, I notice the majority of the crowd has disappeared, and only a few of us are left gawping. To finish, all the performers climb back onto the stage and repeat the same dance from the beginning. We all clap and simultaneously try to forget everything that just happened.
As you can probably tell from my commentary, the show is shit. No one has any performative talent. It’s clear the sole reason any of them are on stage is because they have dwarfism. This place is bleak. That it should even exist is debatable too, but the man who owns the joint, Chen Mingjing, insists the employment the park provides is invaluable. The number of job applications pasted up at the Kingdom of the Little People seems to reinforce this notion: work opportunities for people with disabilities in China are bleak. But that’s a whole other story.
In terms of assessing the place as a tourist attraction and being worthy of a day out… just don’t go unless you have a good sense of humour and the ability to take life with a little pinch of salt. It wasn’t easy on the eyes or the soul, and is clearly a fake monopolisation on tourist money, but perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to support. People with dwarfism don’t seem to have it so easy in China.
Cover via The Daily Beast