April 12, 2010
KUNMING, CHINA -- At the newest and hottest theme park in China right now, there are no rides or roller coasters, no cotton candy or games.
There are just lots and lots of little people.
"There are only three requirements to work here," said owner Cheng Mingjing. "No infectious diseases, no one older than 50 and no one taller than 4 feet 3."
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On a recent day at the theme park, hundreds of visitors forked out roughly $12 -- not a small sum in China -- to visit. Guests wander around a fake hilltop village of miniature houses where the dwarfs pretend to live.
And then it's time for the show to begin.
It is a spectacle. In one particularly cringe-inducing number, dance music blares as a leather-clad performer busts some break dancing moves.
A series of traditional Chinese acts follow. The crowd goes wild.
And then the piece de resistance: a slap-stick performance of the classic ballet "Swan Lake," complete with male dwarfs in tights and tutus.
The spectacle is hard to capture in words -- but one comes to mind: disturbing.
The audience, however, loves it.
"It's amazing," said one woman visitor. "I've seen dwarfs in the past, but never so many in the same place. I was very impressed!"
The woman's daughter seemed to have more discerning tastes when asked if she liked the show. She adamantly shook her head: NO.
Dwarf Theme Park: 'There's No Exploitation'
Cashing in on people's curiosity is hardly a novel phenomenon. Think back to the days of freak shows in the United States. The 1932 movie classic "Freaks" features a sideshow circus in which the greatest attractions are deformed people. And remember those Oompa Loompas in the 1971 version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"?
But in these slightly more evolved times, there are few places where you can still see this kind of entertainment. Online critics have slammed the park as a glorified zoo.
Cheng disputed that characterization.
"There's no exploitation," he said. "[Employees are] paid well and they feel at home."
The stars here each make up to $130 a month -- a modest sum, but enough to give them some financial independence. Cheng says he plans to spend more than $100 million over the next few years on the park, expanding his empire to employ more than 1,000 dwarves.
The employees who spoke with "Nightline" had few complaints.
Performers Shi Mei Ying and Shao Tian Ping took us to see their living quarters, which are small but clean and cozy.
"Before people stared and sneered at me on the streets," said Shi Mei. "But now, walking together with other dwarves, we don't care how people will look at us."
Shao echoed the sentiment.
"I used to stay at home all day, but I'm happy here," she said.
Is the theme park politically correct? Certainly not. But for now, perhaps, it's a happy home.