(CNN)Huang Xuejing broke away from the kingdom he once called home six years ago. At just 130 centimeters — a little over 4 feet — Huang’s height permitted him entry into the kingdom in 2009.
His physical growth was limited when he injured his spine in a fall at age 8. Having been warned that surgery to restart his growth could lead to paralysis, his family chose to not take the risk.
After studying graphic design at a school for the disabled in China, Huang found his talents to be of use in the Kingdom of the Little People, a small theme park where about 100 people of short stature, including some with dwarfism, live and perform dances and songs for tourists each day.
The maximum height for workers there is 130 centimeters, meaning Huang just made the cut. He soon found himself working behind the scenes as a manager.
But life wasn’t quite what he had been promised.
Exploring the kingdom
An hour’s drive east of the city of Kunming in southwest China, the park has been branded a disgrace by some overseas, stoking debate about the treatment of people with disabilities in China.
The US-based dwarfism support group Little People of America highlight that opinions vary about whether dwarfism/short stature is actually a disability and believe the kingdom was comparable to a zoo.
The kingdom is billed as a tourist attraction, by its owner, real estate mogul Chen Mingjing. Now, seven years after opening its doors, the kingdom remains open, but few tourists seem to be buying into the fairy tale. Just 15 customers, mainly families with young children, could be counted on one recent day, most of them Chinese.
After paying the 100 yuan ($15) entry fee, customers sit in front of the main stage to watch the morning performances. On this day, 30 performers in pink and red coats dance while a “king” character, complete with a cloak and crown, swans around regally. Shortly afterward, an all-female dance team performed a Bollywood-style routine.
The tone is cute and quirky, with a karaoke feel to the songs sung between dance routines. Another regular performance involves male dancers dressed in female ballerina outfits and pirouetting to “Swan Lake” music.
It’s like any other show performed in jest, but with a much shorter cast.
Life in — and out of — the kingdom
Huang joined the work force in the theme park after having been enticed by its owner, Chen, who was impressed by Huang’s abilities and sold him his dream for the kingdom, Huang said.
“He was very keen and sincere,” Huang said in his small but impeccably tidy studio apartment in central Kunming. “He explained that he wanted to make the kingdom the biggest in the world.”
Chen explained to Huang that managing a team of people with height impediments would be best by someone who understands their perspective.
“That was why he wanted me,” said Huang, who in turn felt that a job helping people like himself might be more meaningful.
The kingdom provides accommodation for staffers, who live in a cluster of dormitory blocks a short walk from the performance area. Many workers move there straight after leaving school, as managers regularly advertise jobs in schools for disabled people in Kunming and find them as students, like Huang.
The workers sleep on bunk beds in shared rooms cluttered with clothes, stuffed animals and phone chargers. A strong constitution is required to visit the separate toilet building, and the roof of one of the blocks serves as a dining area where the staffers prepare and eat communal meals. It’s rustic but liveable.
But after 3 years, Huang chose to set out and work as a freelance performer in Kunming. He wanted to earn more and found life in the kingdom too isolated, despite regular travel to Kunming, his hometown.
“I prefer more lively places; it was too far traveling between the kingdom and city,” he said.
Huang said he largely enjoyed the experience, despite initially being concerned that the shows his colleagues performed were demeaning. “Gradually, I began to feel that it’s not a bad thing for (short people) to have a place to work, a career to look forward to and an environment to stay together.”
He felt comfortable knowing that everyone else was the same. “They were all together; they didn’t have pressure (of interacting in mainstream society),” he said.
But he wanted more.
These days, “I host, sing rock music in bars and attend launch ceremonies and weddings,” he said.
Huang earns 5,000 to 20,000 yuan ($740 to $3,000) a month. He didn’t want to reveal how much he earned inside the kingdom but said his current salary was “a lot more.”
Earning a (good) living
“People like us have to save for the future,” said Yang Qianjun, a former colleague of Huang’s at the Kingdom of the Little People who also ventured out in search of more lucrative employment.
Yang, 30, is 125 centimeters (about 4 feet) tall and worked in the kingdom as a performer until he left four years ago.
He says he was initially paid 800 yuan ($120) a month at the kingdom, later rising to 1,200 yuan ($180) with deductions for food. “It wasn’t enough,” he said.
When asked whether the wages and location made the kingdom hard to leave, Yang was quick to reply: “Yes. Indeed.” He then explained that most of his colleagues still inside were struggling. “Money would be spent the day it was given to us, on daily essentials. We couldn’t save anything.”
Charismatic and talkative, Yang now works as a host in Kunming at a Cultural Revolution-themed eatery plastered with Mao Zedong imagery and staffed by waiters in soldier uniforms.
He earns about 3,000 yuan ($440) a month and says he rarely is discriminated against for his height — something he head feared while in the safety net of the park. “People around here are really nice,” he said.
Huang also said he seldom faces discrimination in public life, and on the rare occasions he does, he simply brushes it off. “Sometimes people watch me, but never adults, only kids,” he said, adding that the attention never gets more serious than children whispering about him.
Hiding away in the kingdom
But in China, especially in rural areas, attitudes about disabled people bringing “shame” to families can often persist.
Some workers still living and performing in the kingdom said they’d had more negative experiences in public.
“In the outside world, people look at me differently, like I’m some kind of monster,” said singer Li Jia, who has worked in the park for six years and has no plans to leave.
“Sometimes, when I walked alone on streets, it made me uncomfortable and embarrassed when people stare at me,” he said while refueling with a bowl of noodles before his next performance.
Neither he nor his colleagues was eager to discuss in detail the discrimination they had been subject to, but they revealed glimpses.
“I got pointed and laughed at by kids. I didn’t like it,” said Lin Zheng Xio, 24, another performer who specializes in singing. He says the struggle for people considered disabled, such as himself, to get work is all too real.
Li Juan, a dancer who is also 24, added, “People would say, ‘Why are you so short?’ and would call me dwarf.”
Li Jia explained that he saw the kingdom as a safe haven. “I chose to come here because everyone here is the same. I feel like it’s a big family,” he said. He believes there is a future for him in the park.
“Some people find love here and get married. We have two married couples, each with two children, plus four or five couples. I met my girlfriend here,” he said.
In 2006, the China Disabled Persons’ Federation estimated the number of people with disabilities in the country to be 83 million, a number including anyone who has abnormalities of loss of a certain organ or function, psychologically or physiologically, or in anatomical structure and who has lost — wholly or in part — the ability to perform an activity in the way considered normal, according to the International Labor Organization.
An opportunity for some?
Chinese legislation requires that all public and private employers reserve at least 1.5% of their job opportunities for people with disabilities. However, according to Cindy Zhang, an employment lawyer with Shanghai’s Conshine Law Firm, companies often choose to pay fines for not hitting the target instead.
It is often difficult to get cases regarding disability discrimination in the workplace to court, she said, and even if cases are successful, compensation payouts are low. Zhang said many lawyers in China advise against pursuing them at all.
“A lot of factories don’t want us because we’re not able to finish assignments that ‘normal’ people can finish,” Li Jia said, adding that the park is a draw for those without many qualifications. Many of those who work in the park are from poor backgrounds. “A lot of us can’t get office jobs because we don’t have enough education.”
For those who do manage to get jobs outside the park, problems remain. “When I worked in a noodle restaurant with taller people before, they wouldn’t let me do some of the work because they didn’t think I’d be able to,” said Li Bao Xing, 46, a cleaner working in the kingdom.
All the staffers interviewed at the kingdom said they were generally happy to work there.
“I feel it sometimes, but work is work,” Li Jia said with a shrug when asked whether tourists treated his shows like a joke.
Li Juan, who had little experience performing before joining the kingdom, said she found strength in numbers. “At first, I wasn’t used to it, but gradually, I got used to it. After all, there is a group of us here.”
Huang’s assessment is that his kingdom experience was worthwhile, if not quite the life-changing revelation Chen promised. “During the years I was there, it was not bad: not too fast nor slow,” he said nonchalantly. “Working there was fine.”
Though content with her current life in the kingdom, Li Juan hopes to one day emulate Huang and leave, as she dreams of working in a shadow puppet theater. For now, however, she is not ready to venture into the unknown or leave the security of the park.
“I wasn’t feeling secure before. That’s why I found a job with colleagues who are the same as me,” she said. “We respect and care for each other.”
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