Shocked Westerners call it a human zoo, but the residents of China’s “Empire of the Little People” have a different name for the place where people pay to watch performing dwarves. They call it home.
When entrepreneur Chen Mingjing put out a call last year for China’s little people to come live in the park he was building, he quickly got more than 100 applicants, none taller than the cut-off height of 4 feet, 3 inches.
“People accuse me of exploiting them,” Mingjing told NBC News’ Ian Williams in a report that aired Friday on TODAY. “But we’ve given them a home.”
‘Our life became better’The home is literally a theme park that recently opened in Kunming, in the mountains of southern China. Visitors pay $12 a head to watch the residents dress up as fairy-tale characters and perform musical numbers and slapstick comedy.
To a Westerner, the spectacle is reminiscent of circus and carnival “freak shows” that were popular a century ago in America.
“Yet,” Williams reported, “the strongest support for the park comes from the dwarves themselves.”
“Our life became better,” one diminutive resident told Williams.
“It’s better here?” Williams said.
‘A place for us’Williams reported that in China, people who are handicapped have not been mainstreamed into the general population as they have been in the West. “Disabled people, or those who are just different, are often shunned in China,” he reported.
“People would laugh at us, they looked down at us,” a park resident, Bin Bin, told Williams.
But that was in the outside world. Once Bin Bin and his fellow little people came to the park, they found a new sense of respect. They also found mushroom-shaped houses with furnishings all scaled to their proportions.
“Everything in this place is designed for us,” resident Xiao bu Dian said.
The park has even provided a haven for romance. Two residents, Ling Ou and Xiong Ci Lun, met at the park, fell in love, and have scheduled an April wedding.
The residents and featured attractions at the park earn the equivalent of $130 a month along with their room and board. On their day off, they go into Kunming and go shopping, enduring the stares of the curious that they’ve become inured to.
They say that they know the park is using them to make money — but they are also using it to earn money and to improve their lives. Many take English lessons after their workdays are done. None complained of being exploited.
Indeed, in a nation of a billion people, there are many like them who would like to join them.
“Make of this what you will, it is a spectacle,” Williams said. “And right now the park is snowed under with applications from across China from little people who all want to join this empire.”