Reviewed by Hannah Lau
Directed and produced by Matthew Salton
China, 2015, 70 minutes
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
The World Ecological Garden of Butterflies and Little People Kingdom in Kunming, Yunnan, China is a theme park where over 100 dwarves live and work. Days are filled with putting on performances of song and dance, and interacting with park visitors, including posing for lots of photos.
The first and natural response to this theme park, is that it must be exploitative and derogatory. Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Perhaps the line cannot be drawn clearly as there are both pros and cons to consider.
In 2009, a wealthy Chinese businessman, Chen Mingjing, created the theme park after meeting a person with dwarfism at a train station and learning how difficult life is for people like them in China.
In most cases, people with dwarfism stop growing at about 4 to 5 years of age. At about 7 or 8 years old, the merciless teasing begins. Parents in China often handle their child’s situation poorly as they themselves do not know how to cope. They are unable to bear the shame that befalls their family due to their child’s condition. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of poor financial decisions that leaves the child with no choice. One of the performers at the theme park shared how her father chose not to put money towards getting her growth hormone injections and instead used the money to build a nicer home. China’s society is still massively underdeveloped when it comes to education, awareness, and accommodation for those with special conditions or needs.
Chen’s intent was to recreate a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs-themed environment. It would be a place where the dwarves could be employed, live in community with those like themselves, and feel a sense of pride and value for their abilities. Considering that most of those with dwarfism in China cannot find jobs, being able to work and make enough money to send some home is empowering.
Director Matthew Salton, gives us an inside look at the park where performances take place and living quarters are specially designed houses in the shape of Disney-like mushrooms. According to the CEO, there are only three requirements for being part of the Little People Kingdom, "No infectious diseases, no one older than 50, and no one taller than 4 feet 3." The dwarves at the park come from all over China to join the troupe, some leaving home for the first time.
One of the performers, Gao Yan, says she doesn’t feel alone or different at the Little People Kingdom. Despite there being an audience that specially comes to see her and her colleagues perform, she doesn’t see it as a human zoo, but instead, a showcase of their strong wills and ability to overcome adversity. She enjoys performing and the chance to feel like a star on stage.
Having said that, not all dwarves who have spent time at Little People Kingdom feel it’s a good fit for them. Some choose to leave, living in the big city doing random jobs, or going overseas to places like Japan to work at amusement parks dressing up as cartoon characters. But for those who choose to stay at Little People Kingdom, they feel a level of redemption from the psychological pain they’ve experienced in the past from being different. One of the dwarves said that he doesn’t want to grow taller because if he exceeded the maximum height requirement he would have to leave the park.
Yes, there is a certain exploitative undertone here beneath what appears to be a positive and empowering environment for those with dwarfism. The rather low production value of the film also makes the whole thing more awkward than it probably should be. But, as with many things in China, the development just isn’t there yet, and things aren’t as evolved as they should be. So given the alternative and the lack of other provisions in society, for now, maybe a theme park isn’t the worst place for a dwarf to be.