KUNMING, China (Reuters Life!) - Sitting in a valley in southwest China sits an unlikely and controversial theme park -- the Little People's Kingdom of dwarfs.
Here, dwarfs perform in fairytale costumes for tourists, drawing both curious crowds and a fair share of criticism.
For many of the employees, the park is a rare opportunity to find work, and, as unlikely as it seems for men and women doing daily spoof performances of Swan Lake in tutus, respect.
The park, near Kunming city in Yunnan province, employs 108 dwarfs from across the country, who twice daily gather on an artificial hillside to dance and sing for tourists.
As well as a host of dwarf guardian angels, the fantasy world has a king, an army, a health department and even its own foreign ministry, and all must pretend to live in a miniature hilltop village of crooked little houses.
For 80 yuan ($11.72) -- not a small sum in China -- tourists can watch skits, sentimental group dances and acrobatics some may view as more than a little reminiscent of medieval freak shows now deemed politically incorrect in many parts of the world.
The show's centerpiece, a farcical rendition of Swan Lake, sees performers both male and female dressed in pink tutus and pretending to be little swans.
"When I did it for the very first time, I felt a bit embarrassed. I had never worn a skirt like that before," said 21-year-old Chen Ruan, who left his native Hunan province to join the park when it opened last July.
"But later, once I got used to it, performing it felt very natural," he added.
Chen Ming, a flamboyant Sichuanese businessman who single-handedly conceived and funded the park, made his fortune manufacturing electronics and investing in property, but said he had always wanted to do good for society.
And Chen now has bigger plans for his little kingdom.
Having already invested around 100 million yuan in the site, which nestles among nine forested peaks, he is looking for a further 700 million to expand it.
While the venture is yet to make a profit, Chen hopes the number of performers employed will grow to around 1,000 within a few years. One day, Chen beams, the navy will have its own reservoir, the infantry a railroad, the air force a cable car, and the foreign ministry employees will serve as tour guides.
"I'm very happy with it," he told Reuters. "What I need now is for some people, especially Europeans and Americans, to understand us. Because some people don't get it, they think we are using the dwarfs.
"But what we are actually doing is giving them a platform to live, giving them worth and the ability to work freely, to exist freely," he added.
Not everyone is convinced. Disabled rights groups and members of China's increasingly vocal online community have suggested the park may only serve to increase stigma.
"We need to go and tell him how to respect disabled people's rights, how to help disabled people to develop in their own lives, and not to exploit people's curiosity for commercial success," said Xie Yan, director of Beijing's One Plus One Cultural Exchange Center, an NGO which advocates more equality for China's disabled.
The situation for China's estimated 83 million people with a disability has improved in recent years, with enrolment figures for schools and universities increasing dramatically. Beijing's hosting of the Paralympics in 2008 also focused government and public attention on the rights of China's disabled.
Yet traditional prejudices against anyone who's not considered "normal", and a lack of specialized infrastructure such as wheelchair ramps, means many people with disabilities, or medical conditions such as dwarfism, still avoid venturing out.
Li Caixia said it had been near impossible to find well-paid work after graduating from high school, and was tempted to the park by the prospect of up to 2,000 yuan a month, double what she might get working anywhere else.
"As soon as employers see us, they know they definitely wouldn't want a small person like us. They have to pay the same salary, so they all want to find someone more normal," she said. "But here, staff aren't prejudiced like the people outside."
The only qualification for employees, whose ages range from 18 to 48, is to be shorter than 130 cms (51 inches) and be fundamentally self sufficient.
Living together in a dormitory designed to look like a cave, some residents say life in the park is a welcome opportunity to be around others with similar experiences.
Facilities from sinks to light switches are installed for people with a short stature in mind, offering greater independence for people many of whom were once heavily reliant on parents or charitable institutions.
Kunming primary school teacher Deng Li, whose students were among hundreds enjoying the show on a recent weekday morning, said it was a positive experience for both sides.
"You can see the children have accepted them," she said. "I think this will be of great help to the children as they grow up and come into contact with people like them."
(Additional reporting by Tyra Dempster in Beijing; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Miral Fahmy)
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