Three Words: Midget. Theme. Park.
For a long time I suspected that something was wrong with Mr. Chen, but only now did I grasp the majestic breadth of his insanity; I could now color in an entire childhood of licking windows, kicking squirrels, and chasing laser pointers.
Within five minutes of purchasing tickets to Chen’s amusement park, a golf cart ferried my two friends and I to the park’s entrance gate—an ominous, wooden Jurassic Park doom-portal, blasting unsuitably cheery music that seemed to speak Teletubbies and pillow fights. At first, I shrugged it off as Chinese quirkiness. I hadn’t visited a theme park in several years and I was just happy to revisit cotton candy, mindless escapism, and epic toilet queues of globular tourists with fanny packs. However, as the golf cart rattled into the park I noticed a startling absence of crowds. In fact, this was the first time in China that I wasn’t completely enveloped in a heaving, shoulder-high mass of black hair and sweaty, Chinese flesh.
It only took a minute to realize why…
My jaw dropped. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” I gasped, but Ryan and Tanya didn’t respond. They just stared forward as the golf cart snaked up the hill to a village of concrete mushroom-houses, along a road flanked on each side with dozens upon dozens of midgets in fairy tale costumes, all staring at us in heavy, black silence as we passed.
I’ve debated for a very long time whether or not to share the following story. It is (by nature) offensive, marginalizing, and juvenile… but it also involves a Midget King who has a golden pimp-cape and armed bodyguards, so I figure I’m guaranteed to either double my subscriber base or diminish it by half. Ergo, to those who are easily offended, I sincerely apologize in advance. I don’t find anything inherently funny about midgets—or dwarfs, little people, persons-of-short-stature, the countertop-challenged, or whatever safe-word-du-jour I should be using. I’m really just tickled by the impossible ridiculousness of it all. I’d be just as enchanted by a theme park in which every employee had a horrendous lazy-eye.
For the sake of full disclosure, I need to admit that I knew exactly what I was getting myself into by visiting “Dwarf Kingdom” and I had been planning this outing for over a year. I knew virtually everything about the theme park—a theme park in which hundreds of employees with dwarfism pretend (without any hint of irony) to live in concrete mushroom houses, dress in silly costumes, and break into songs. I had read all about its enigmatic founder, Mr. Chen, a billionaire real estate tycoon who scaled his financial summit before declaring that he was ready to give something back to the world. But instead of building a hospital, starting a charity, or even just donating some canned foods, Chen decided to relocate a bunch of midgets into concrete mushroom shanties, declare one of them king, and then charge visitors fifteen dollars a head for entry.
You could probably imagine Chen’s shock when this selfless act of humanity prompted a fire blast of criticism. Organizations like Little People of America and Handicap International condemned the park as exploitative, humiliating, and “just plain wrong.” Others compared it to early 20th century sideshows, which promote a harmful divide between handicapped people and the rest of society.
What really caught my interest was that some organizations had applauded Chen’s brainchild, including numerous Chinese charity groups and (brace for it) the United fucking Nations.
Yup! The UN took a break from petitioning the Syrian government to present “Dwarf Kingdom” with a humanitarian award.
Just let that wash over you for a second…
Obviously I needed to visit Dwarf Kingdom and assess the situation myself—because I can’t stand for moral ambiguity, and also because I needed a moral pretense for visiting the park and seeing all the little people sing and dance in costumes without looking like a total dick.
Ryan, Tanya, and I disembarked the golf cart and spread out our map of Dwarf Kingdom & Butterfly Park—which proved utterly useless, as there were no paths and none of the attractions made any sense. In fact, the entire park seemed to be designed by Mr. Chen as an afterthought, presumably at the end of a ferocious, four-day crack binge.
For starters, there were no butterflies anywhere in Dwarf Kingdom & Butterfly Park. We checked. We asked. There were none.
The “Kingdom” part of the name was also misleading, and translated to a cluster of concrete mushroom houses with tiny doors. It kind of looked like the Shire, but the part where seedy liquor stores get robbed and Legolas goes to meet “special friends” after dark. Looming over the village was an empty, Seussian “castle” and observation platform, which boasted a slightly elevated view of the village and a ceiling overtaken with spiders that fall on your head.
Beyond this castle, all sanity and reason quickly disintegrated. We stumbled upon such epic attractions as, “Ring of Benches Jammed Inside Filthy, Rotting Trees,” which showcased several benches crammed into hollow tree trunks, providing you just enough space to sit claustrophobically and stare ahead at nothing as more spiders fall on your head. Or, “Inexplicable Staircase in A Field,” which was made of giant, plywood books (the significance of which remains a mystery) and rewarded climbers with yet another memorable view of nothing (this time without the excitement of spiders).
When we came across “Twelve Non-Functional Wooden Rowboats Nailed to a Plywood Catwalk,” we discovered another group of tourists—a Chinese family who had apparently never seen a fake boat, something made of wood, a camera, or anything at all ever before. They took no less than a thousand pictures, threw endless peace signs, and exploded with excitement.
And then that was it. Aside from the controversial “Dwarf Stadium,” the rest of the park fell somewhere between Disney World and a post-Soviet dystopia—a dirt track pockmarked with bizarre installations bearing no functional purpose, artistic merit, thematic relevance to dwarves or butterflies, or any entertainment value whatsoever unless you happened to be cooked off your face on angel dust. They existed merely to assure you that you were still in Chen’s frightening domain.
If the park seemed at all unusual, nothing prepared us for the inspired absurdity waiting at “Dwarf Stadium”—the park’s main attraction and the cause of much indignation.
Twice a day, the park employees perform a show to a stadium of 1,000 seats—a testament to the scale of Chen’s vision.
Perhaps he was a tad optimistic.
There were fourteen audience members sitting in the front row on miniature chairs, facing a stage backdropped by an elaborate, tiered staircase. The fourteen also comprised staff, including the park’s manager Ms. Wu Wei, who sat next to us, smiled, and occasionally offered nonsensical English phrases.
At 11AM, the loudest speakers in China roared into song, assaulting the audience in a discordant wall of noise. At the top of the staircase, there slowly appeared an army of one hundred midgets, bedecked in extravagant costumes, screeching a tune in high-pitched, warbled Mandarin. As they spilled forth, struggling down the stairs, they sang along to a melody so demeaningly whimsical that the Oompa Loompas would have buried their faces and cried.
Chen had recreated Broadway; it was Bob Fossy in miniature. Dancers fanned across the stage in every direction, side-stepping up onto platforms. Everywhere there were fairies, princesses, gypsies, and knights, their faces all radiating with intense displeasure.
As they moaned the chorus, two armed police officers appeared at the top of the stairs. It took me a second to realize that standing between the officers’ legs was tiny, glowering man wearing yellow, velour pants, reflective aviators, a fuzzy crown, and a gold cape. He looked like a pillow-sized Snoop Dogg. Surely, ‘twas the Midget King.
The whole ensemble spasmed into a dance, except for the Midget King, who was having none of that. He just stood perfectly still. Menacing down at the crowd. Demanding our respect.
The song ended with a bang and all one hundred performers froze in tableau, staring expectantly at the fourteen people blinking in the front row, who offered soft, confused golf claps.
Suddenly singers took the stage. Then we craned our necks upward to watch a spectacular tightrope walker. Then came a traditional fan dance. Then came another musical number. Then a short, moving play in which a singer shared his personal story. Then things started to get weird…
Clarinets shrieked as a harem of belly dancing midgets attacked the stage, draped in exotic silks. They were decidedly untalented. As the audience tried to grasp what was happening, the girls began lifting their veils, exposing their puffy torsos and jerky hips. It felt like something I shouldn’t be watching. I suspect my brain shut down at this point, because the next thing I knew two cows were being dragged on stage. One of the cows had an extra pair of legs protruding from its back. The other cow appeared normal and stood there for a few minutes before pissing and shitting profound volumes onto the stage, at which point a man appeared to collect it in a bucket. Then, after another minute of staring, the cows were taken away and never mentioned again.
The grand finale was Chen’s notorious rendition of Swan Lake.
While admittedly I have never seen Swan Lake, I would bet my life that it bears no similarity to this performance at all. Chen’s interpretation involved a dozen male and female midgets in tutus scurrying onstage, shimmying all over the place with no apparent choreography, and making pained expressions.
Ms. Wei smiled and leaned towards us. “They are happiness,” she proposed, and we nodded.
Then the music swelled and everyone in the audience got up and wandered away, signaling that the performance had finished.
For a long moment, Tanya, Ryan, and I just sat there, trying to absorb what we’d just witnessed. I pictured UN representative Hans Blix cheering on his feet, throwing flowers to the Midget King. I groped for clarity.
Was I offended?
Should I be?
Are the employees upset?
I glanced over as they hopped off the stage and dispersed from the stadium. Some were chatting in groups. Some were laughing. Some were doing push-ups. A few guys were dealing out cards at a folding table, and upon catching my glance the dealer waved me over to join them. I smiled and demurred.
“So many emotions…” Tanya broke the silence.
Several weeks after my visit, I learned why the UN had given Chen his humanitarian award. Their argument for advocacy was surprisingly compelling—apparently circumstances in China are different from in America. They venture that in the developing world, some people born with dwarfism aren’t lucky enough to work in a sunny Keebler factory. They’re more likely to find themselves working in a theme-bar, wearing a handled harness and being hurled repeatedly down a padded runway by trashed Shanghai businessmen. Even more likely is that they don’t get to work at all—and if they do, they’re given menial jobs away from the public eye and receive half the wages of non-disabled people. With such bleak options, it’s no surprise that 25% of China’s handicapped never bother going to school.
On the ride back to Kunming, I kept thinking about the act we saw in which the young singer shared his life story. He explained how he had always dreamed of sharing his gift for singing, but he could never find work. Nobody took him seriously because he was nary three feet tall and didn’t look a day older than thirteen (even though he was in fact thirty). People would laugh at him.
Then he talked about coming to Dwarf Kingdom, where he and other employees receive a higher salary than most college graduates, free handicapped-customized housing that’s otherwise unavailable to them, and a friendly living and working environment. As his voice grew emotional, music began to play and he repeated that his dream was always to be a singer.
Then he started to sing.
His voice was lavishly awful, like a bag of cats being dragged through a field of Tasers—which sort of ruined the credibility of his story—but the point is that, in an uncompromising country like China, Dwarf Kingdom offered him work, fair treatment, sense of worth, and a place where he was no longer an outsider. In an ideal world, these things should be a given. But it’s China! So these things require a tutu dance and a six-legged cow. One day this wont be necessary, but until then Dwarf Kingdom will continue receiving a weekly flood of applications from across the People’s Republic.
In a recent interview, Mr. Chen revealed that he hopes to one day collect over 1,000 dwarves. He plans on investing $100 million into the park, adding tiny dogs, tiny trees, and a black BMW modified to look like a flying saucer, from which hundreds of singing midgets shall burst forth at the start of each performance.
So I guess criticizing Chen for Dwarf Kingdom would be like bashing Oscar Schindler for employing children…
“It will be like a fairy tale!” shouted Chen.
Erm… On second thought…
To hear another shame-faced, Asian exploitation adventure, take a ride to Burma’s ”Human Zoo“
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For more Chinese fringe culture, sample “The 1,000 Year Old Egg & The Three Penis Wine”