During my time in Shanghai one of my home comforts was to occasionally binge watch British and Irish TV shows, I don’t watch much television but when I grew a little homesick the cure was usually a few hours of back-to-back episodes of Father Ted, That Mitchell and Webb Look, Peep Show or An Idiot Abroad; the latter show is what I would refer to as fiction/non-fiction, it is fictional in the sense that the main character, Karl Pilkington is not the idiot he is made out to be, it is non-fictional in that his experiences visiting different locations around the world, eating ‘strange’ foods and participating in some out of the ordinary practices are very real.
On one of the episodes Karl and the television crew visit a place in China’s Yunnan province called ‘The Kingdom of the Little People (小矮人王国)’. The name isn’t a metaphor, it isn’t a name born through Chinese legend, it is literally a mock village, a theme park if you will, almost completely ran by little people – the brainchild of entrepreneur Chen Mingjing.
I was planning a trip to Yunnan province anyway but after watching this episode of An Idiot Abroad I knew I had to make a visit to 小人国 (Xiao Ren Guo), this is the name it is most commonly referred to in China. Unbeknownst to me, the independent news outlet, ‘VICE’ had sent one of their reporters to the Kingdom of the Little People to provide their viewers with some insight into a place that might make the average westerner feel a little uncomfortable. The Kingdom of the Little People has been condemned by a number of organisations including the Little People of America. Warwick Davis, a well respected British actor, little person and friend of Karl Pilkington condemned the the organisation for reenforcing stereotypes that little people should be viewed as some sort of carnival sideshow attraction, and he does raise a very valid point. Many more organisations and and individuals have condemned The Kingdom of the Little People, likening the organisation to a human zoo – but is it really that bad?
I arrived in Kunming late one night in the midst of a tropical storm, my first experience of the city was a great one – I headed out from my hostel to get some street barbecue and got talking to a couple of guys and their wives, after spending the night eating and drinking together while conversing with my broken Chinese they invited me to join their family meal the following day. The next morning I asked the people in the hostel about visiting The Kingdom of the Little People and they told me how to get there, I made the journey via bus which took roughly 45 minutes.
Upon arrival I honestly didn’t know what I had turned up to, for the first 15 minutes I didn’t see a single person. I eventually found a staffed counter, paid my fee and was taken up a hill in a golf kart. I was directed towards a butterfly enclosure which in all honestly was pretty impressive, I saw butterflies I had never seen before – apparently butterflies and little people kingdoms go hand in hand…
After my brief walk through the butterfly enclosure I made my way towards a structure I had seen on An Idiot Abroad, after walking for a short while I found myself within the Kingdom, I was surrounded by the little novelty houses I had seen on the television show, however from the show you would be lead to believe that the area is bustling with little people, obviously I knew the cartoon like houses were not inhabited by little people but I was under the assumption that they all lived within the area. (It turns out that some do live within the area and some commute from Kunming and other nearby villages/towns).
When I arrived the place was deserted, it felt as though I had walked onto a movie set which had been deserted many moons ago – the place actually really creeped me out to begin with, and when I say it was deserted I mean I literally never heard a peep for well over two hours, I began to wonder what the hell this place is really about. It turns out I had arrived much earlier than I should have.
The VICE documentary shed some light on what the employees of Xaio Ren Guo thought about their situation and it seemed as though they were happy that after a lifetime of failing to find employment due to their handicap they had found a place where they can earn money, make friends, form relationships and for the first time be surrounded by people like themselves.
While I can see that this place could be viewed as exploitation of little people and something that further separates the employees from the rest of the populace, reenforcing the fact that they are ‘different’ I cant help but think if they are happy then what’s the problem? After all, isn’t their happiness the most important thing? There isn’t much video footage to go off when it comes to seeing what life is like for the employees at Xiao Ren Guo, but I think the VICE documentary shows that it doesn’t actually seem bad at all.
When a 22 year old employee was asked about his opinions on foreign criticism of the kingdom his response was basically that the little people who come to Xiao Ren Guo know what they want, they feel they’ve come to a place where they belong, they can live a life without prejudice and most importantly they are happier than they have ever been.
The main focus on the documentary was on a 22 year old female employee at Xiao Ren Guo, Yuzhuo Liu, she talked about how she was never accepted into society, how she was made fun of when she went out in public which resulted in devastating self loathing, she talked about how she felt happier and more outgoing since moving to Xiao Ren Guo – this for me is enough to justify the Kingdom’s existence, it is my opinion that the most important issue is whether the little people themselves are happy.
Hope you’ve found this post interesting, if you’ve been to Xiao Ren Guo or would simply like to voice your opinion on this matter, leave it in the comments.