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The theme park where all the staff have dwarfism

People standing on the steps in front of a line of houses

The Kingdom of the Little People is one of China's more unusual tourist attractions. Established in 2009, it was created as a secure place of employment for people with dwarfism who are often shunned in China's superstitious culture - but some have criticised it for isolating staff from society.

As I arrive at the Kingdom of the Little People, a welcome party emerges through the mountain mist looking anything but unhappy and exploited.

"Guards" are standing there in medieval costumes with plastic shields. Dancers, heavily made-up, smile and wave politely at the 50 or so guests who have arrived for the morning show. Through an interpreter I am told there is a fire service, a police force, a parliament and a democratically elected ruler. Those who can't dance or perform are given jobs in security, handicrafts, catering or cleaning.

It all seems rather better organised than the nearby city of Kunming, a city that's keen on ambition and natural beauty, but with an infrastructure that doesn't seem to have matched its recent growth. Plush hotels have high definition flat-screen TVs, but no heating. Motorways lie half-finished. The public toilets are OK with liquids but won't, you're warned, accept solids.

Image copyright ALAMY

The village of those of restricted growth has plastic mushroom houses like something from a 90s Nintendo game. They sit on a small hillock from where the performers file out for their daily parade. The people don't actually live in those fungal dwellings but in heated dormitories some distance away.

In the parade, the performers flank the emperor. He's an elderly man who waves at his subjects from beneath a black cloak.

The community only allows those under a certain height to live here. And bizarrely, the stray dogs are tiny - packs of Chihuahuas and Papillons. An enthusiastic presenter details the day's events on a microphone and the singers make up for a lack of vocal skill with boundless enthusiasm.

The visitors here, mainly Chinese tourists, take photos and cheer as the performers take part in folk dances, gymnastic displays and muscleman shows. A chap with large biceps makes a grand show of lifting weights bigger than he is.

The audience laughs at a drag queen, who throws a silicone breast implant into the crowd. They respond by showering him with roses. The tourists have their picture taken with the entertainers - the shortest the most popular - before they are invited to have tea in the small houses.

The bosses here are keen for me to meet as many residents as possible. They insist there are no secrets. The people living here certainly appear happy and relaxed. I learn that in most places in China they meet no-one else of their height. Here they are accepted and are given language classes, fitted clothes and an agreeable wage.

I meet one of the presenters Xiao Xiao - or Little Little - who has a boyfriend here and is happy. She says only a few of the 200 residents have left and that was largely because they were homesick.

Previously, she tells me, she used to sing on top of bars for small change and drunks would grab at her or throw drinks. Now she sings on a proper stage - people applaud politely and throw flowers.

Another woman tells me she left a toxic job in a smelting factory to come here. Others begged or thieved. Few jobs, it seems, are open to people with dwarfism in China.

Image copyright ALAMY

The taunts or aggression that many of these people suffered elsewhere just don't happen here.

I make a number of visits to the Kingdom in the three days I'm in this part of China, and while the visitors cheer and take photos they all seem particularly polite.

And gradually it becomes clear that, for those living here, sex and love are big attractions. Previously, many had struggled to find relationships but here there have been several marriages and inevitably children, all happily celebrated. There are no locks on the doors - I'm told there's no crime. Any disputes, marital or otherwise, are solved by the elected council.

The stage and publicly facing aspect of their lives are gaudy, almost tacky. This is like a Santa's grotto of naff attractions. But in the private quarters beyond, where they spend most of their lives, there's privacy and respect.

Before I go, I have another chat with Xiao Xiao who says wherever she goes, here or in the world outside, people are fascinated by her height. But I can't help wondering whether being gawped at for four hours a day is a fair exchange for a life of increased security and a little happiness.

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