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Dwarf Empire-Little people, broad shoulders

A theme park in Kunming gives unusually short people not just protection from society's jibes but also helps them earn their own living. Guo Shuhan reports

Wu Zimin, 44, presides over a unique empire. At 10 am every day, he shows up at a mushroom-like castle, accompanied by an entourage whose members are all roughly the same height as him: 80 cm.

For 50 minutes, in the morning and afternoon, they sing, dance, present magic, and perform acrobatics and short plays, at "Dwarf Empire" - a theme park located at the foot of picturesque Xishan Hill in Kunming, in Southwest China's Yunnan province.

Having been a beggar since the age of 8, Wu says he never thought he would survive for another three decades, let alone play "king" some day.

Nearly 100 dwarfs have joined the park since it was founded last May by Chen Mingjing, chairman of Yunnan Jiucai Yundie Biotechnology Co Ltd, as part of his World Butterfly Ecological Garden that officially opened in September 2009.

The dwarfs are assigned jobs based on their capabilities, with some tasked with performing, some with running the canteen, and others with making silk flowers, minding stalls and working as tour guides.

Everything in the theme park is customized to meet the special needs of the staff, including the size of pet dogs.

Chen says he wanted to provide a safe haven for people like Wu, who often face neglect and abuse.

"I hope this 'kingdom' can help them live better lives. They can spend the rest of their lives here if they like," Chen says.

The idea of such a park came to him six years ago, when he saw some dwarf beggars at a railway station.

According to the Second National Survey on the Disabled of 2007, China had a disabled population of nearly 83 million, of whom the physically disabled accounted for 29 percent.

It was the first time that people suffering from dwarfism were classified as physically disabled, although no exact figure of their numbers is available.

Seventy percent of the theme park's employees used to live a vagrant's life or stay holed up at home. Kunming's "Dwarf Empire" offers them a stable salary and a place to stay.

"I, a drifting broken boat, can find a real harbor there," posted Yi Shaobo, 29, online, on the day he decided to try his luck in Kunming.

A native of Xiangfan, Hubei province, Yi's father, also a dwarf, always supported and encouraged him. But 12 years ago, he died in a traffic accident.

Yi dropped out of middle school and joined a folk arts troupe. One day, he saw the troupe leader beat his dwarf partner with a steel rod, for no apparent reason. The frightened Yi ran away.

The young man found there were few jobs available for dwarfs. A few lucky ones can find work in government-funded factories built specifically for the disabled. Others play the circus clown, which Yi tried but failed.

Confined to his house, Yi had to face sneering neighbors and stares from strangers.

A desperate and despondent Yi was contemplating suicide when he heard about the theme park in Kunming. He finally saw hope.

Yi says living with other dwarfs makes him feel secure and most significantly, has given him a sense of dignity.

However, becoming a confident performer is not easy for people like Yi, who have been berated for years, says Wu Wei, who not only helps find recruits for the park but also acts as a psychological counselor.

"Shortness is just about your physique. You can be a giant in your mind," Wu always tells the newcomers. She is gratified that they've become outgoing and optimistic, and even courageous enough to bargain when shopping.

Says Wang Yuanping, their artistic tutor: "They perform from the heart. Although their artistic capabilities may still be limited, they show a long-suppressed passion,"

Besides learning to perform, Yi and his friends are also put through English anchoring and etiquette training courses provided by the company for free. Some have even found their true love here. Wu Chunhong, one of the show's anchors, met her Mr Right, A Xiong, and is now married.

World Peace Foundation, an NGO affiliated with the UN, will soon begin shooting a film, The Dwarf in the Sunshine, based on the staff's personal experiences.

"We want to show the self-reliance of this special group and the importance of respect for every human being," says Wang Mantang, executive chairman of the foundation's China section. "The staff here are not simply subsidized like those working in the government-funded factories, but are making a living through their own efforts."

However, Xie Yan, founder of Beijing One Plus One Cultural Exchange Center, a non-profit organization that is aimed at helping the disabled support themselves, says it's still too early to call it a success.

"Even if mutual respect and self-reliance are realized, it does not change the fact that the staff are employed because they are dwarfs rather than for their abilities."

However, if the theme park paves the way for these people to be integrated into mainstream society, it can be regarded as a success, he says.