Kunming, China – The sign at the entrance may read “Dwarfs’ Empire”, but the residents of this haven for short people walk tall.
Occupants of the village an hour’s drive away from Kunming, capital of China’s Yunnan province, live, work, perform – and fall in love – just like everyone else.
The theme park has grown popular with tourists, and it now hosts more than 100 employees happy to have paid jobs that enable them to enjoy lives that would be the envy of many taller Chinese.
Performers impersonate kings, guards, servants and fairies, imagining they live in miniature houses built on top of a hill in the park – although in reality their home is a shared dormitory.
Dwarfs’ Empire is the brainchild of Chen Mingjing, 48, a former teacher and entrepreneur, who created it in 2009 to help disabled people find work and have a chance to live a normal life. He lives in Sichuan province but visits regularly to check up on things.
“Now they have a place to work, to find friends and to hang out among those who have the same problems,” says Chen.
Aside from his short stature and undersized, wrinkled hands, Yuan Hongbing, 22, cuts a stylish figure.
A passionate basketball fan, he dresses in cool clothes with long dark hair hanging down, earring in his left ear, and sunglasses perched on the top of his head.
“Everyone in my family is normal, quite the average height,” says Yuan, a resident of the Dwarfs’ Empire for two years.
He has a good reason to be happy in his adopted home: it is where he met the love of his life, Jiang Yuting, 21, who arrived at Dwarfs’ Empire about the same time. The couple married a year ago and have a three-month-old baby.
They are the same as we are and they also need love. Maybe a little more.
Both perform in a show twice a day that attracts tourists from all over the country and combines different circus acts involving acrobats and motorcyclists, belly dancers and singers.
The village is occupied by people up to 1.3m in height and everything is specially built to enable them to feel comfortable.
Yuan and Jiang, for example, live in a tiny room stuffed with clothes, boxes and kitchenware.
The laptop on the nightstand is always opened, Yuan loves to surf the web and watch drama shows online. Like many couples, they have packed off their child to stay with their parents because of their work.
Their working hours are from 8am until 5pm and they have four days off a month, when they can go to Kunming or just have time to themselves.
Yu Liji, the resident teacher in her mid-40s, exudes empathy.
“They are the same as we are and they also need love. Maybe a little more,” she says.
“We have classes every morning. I teach them how to dance, how to sew, some history and geography, Buddhism and other disciplines. I take care of them.”
Belly dancer Feng Jinmei, 24, has been living in the village for more than four years and loves her job because it makes her feel “appreciated”.
Her mother died when she was 13, but her father and younger brother visit regularly, even if she only gets a chance to go home once a year.
Sometimes we get tourists that come here just to stare at us - it's awful. But not all of them are like that; most of them are actually quite nice.
She moved to the village because she found everyday chores difficult and, besides dancing, makes flowers and toys to sell at the local store.
Feng has a boyfriend but says she is not sure if they will marry because of the complications of having a child.
“Especially when you know that your child is not going to be the normal height,” she says.
Feng knows what it means to be different from others. “Sometimes we get tourists that come here just to stare at us – it’s awful,” she says.
“But not all of them are like that; most of them are actually quite nice. I just hate it when they call me ‘small’ and ‘adorable’ all the time.”
Yet although life in Dwarfs’ Empire may allow its lucky residents to live fulfilled and productive lives, it will never enable them to escape their condition.
Asked if she could have had the chance to grow up with normal height, Feng confesses, apprehensively, that she has always dreamt of being taller.