Before I get started on the moral ambiguity that is the Dwarves Empire, I shall enlighten you as to how we found ourselves there on this most peculiar of days, and what we found when we arrived.
As you may know, so far China has offered little in the way of its promised oddities and traditions. Our current location of Kunming was the closest we had been to finding it, but it was still a big city, and lacking in the aforementioned potentialities. I had seen the Dwarves Empire on a show called “An Idiot Abroad”, the star of which had been to see the Empire and loved it, it should be mentioned that he was chosen for the show because he has a different way of looking at things, this being one of those things. I had no idea the Empire was in Yunnan (the province we currently find ourselves in), or that it was relatively close to the city (Kunming). Upon seeing the first advertisement of this wily place, I had a little flutter of excitement, this certainly had that “only in China” feel to it. As we got closer to leaving Kunming I made every effort to set in a time when we could go, and went about consulting with the hostel staff on how to get there (in hushed tones it must be said so as not to upset the more fragile moralists in the hostel).
We had the previous day been for a walk to the train station, and booked our tickets for the following night. So the morning of the day we were to leave, we woke up at about 9, packed our stuff and booked out of the hostel (Upland for anyone who wants to know, recommended, friendly staff, nice rooms and good atmosphere). We left our bags there and started the somewhat difficult journey to the magical kingdom.
1 taxi ride to a hotel with buses outside, 10 yuan.
1 bus from hotel to base of mountainish area, 6 yuan.
A minibus to the base of the Dwarves Empire, 25 yuan.
The Dwarves Empire, priceless (actually 80 yuan).
Walking up to the actual “empire” itself we saw a load of Chinese people leaving, “Damn, we had missed a show”, but there was another at 14:00 so we could kill 2 hours looking around and chatting to the little people. That was what I expected, what we found however was a different story. Seeing as how the majority of people had left and the show was done, the dwarves had gone off to do whatever it is dwarves in China do, and the place was pretty deserted, aside from a few of the miniature locals watching reruns of themselves on a big TV, the place was empty, and those who did see us just kind of ignored us as we walked around, fair enough I thought, keep the theatrics for the big crowds.
Taking it upon ourselves to explore, we wandered around the mushroom houses (they don’t live in these by the way, they have normal houses elsewhere) and the “Castle” on the hill (a big fibreglass structure thingy). These were interesting enough, but not really why we had come. The reason we had come, the show, it turns out wasn’t until 16:00. So, 4 hours to kill, not easy in a deserted dwarf village. We managed it by chatting to a couple of Poms who had also seen “An Idiot Abroad”, and were here for a spectacle.
Then the rain started. If it is raining the dwarves don’t do the show, so it was with a heavy heart that we waited for showtime, thinking it would be cancelled. At about 15:30, the hangers on (there were only about 20 people waiting) were ushered to a seating area around the corner, and with an unexpected pounding of dance music from a small tent, we were treated to a 20 minute show. The show consisted of 2 guys riding a motorbike and bicycle around a cage thingy, and then one guy climbing up and down a “sword” ladder. This seemed so out of context, this hidden gem of a show, that it was almost more spectacular than the main event! After the show the motorbike guys calmly walked back into their tent, lit a fag, and went back to doing whatever they do with the other 23 and a half hours in the day. Bizarre.
So 16:00 came around, the rain stopped and it looked like the show was on, sweet. It was around this time I was assaulted by another first. Deciding the smart thing to do was go to the toilet before the show, I wandered innocently down to the toilets to relieve myself, imagine my horror as I walked to the urinals, and passed a gentleman defecating in the squat, this wouldn’t normally have been an issue, but the toilets here have no doors! Quickly averting my gaze (although I did kind of do a double take, and yes that was his bare arse cocked to the side), I turned to the opposite side of the room, BAH! Another one! “But this one uses a different technique, interesting, so that’s how they manage not to shit on themselves, am I staring? I’m staring!” BAH! I quickly emptied my bladder in the tiny dwarf urinal and made a hasty exit. Only in China.
From what I had seen and heard about the show, my expectations were high, this surely was going to be something to remember. It was, and it wasn’t. The show only lasted about 30 minutes, and due I guess to the rains, the performers had an eventual audience of about 15 people. It is for this reason I can understand the lackluster performance, I am sure when there are hundreds of Chinese people (they get around 400 people sometimes) clapping away, it is a lot easier to drum up enthusiasm.
Never mind, we still got to see a full size guy walk the tightrope, in the rain, with no harness. The dwarves come out in their costumes, the king wave, hip hop dancing, and a few singers who, although they sounded terrible to me, sounded no worse than some of the other Chinese music I have heard here. Halfway through the last singers performance the power died for a few seconds, and that was it, they decided to call it a day. We got up, they got up, and suddenly we were back down the hill, no interactions whatsoever, on yer bike mate. Oh well, it is hard enough conversing with the locals at the best of times, never mind trying to have a chat with someone you obviously came to gawk at.
Although the show was a bit lacking, I still enjoyed the outrageous nature of it, lets be honest, no one goes there because of the incredibly talented performers (although some of them were pretty good) and the wonderful choreography, people go there to see dwarves, I went there to see dwarves, and this is where the moral ambiguity comes in.
Right or wrong
I have contemplated the subject myself and discussed to a lesser degree with Marty the right and wrong of the situation, Marty is pretty much sure as to its morally bereft nature and therefore its existence. I am pretty firmly of a different view. There is no doubt when you are viewing the show that there is something not right about it, but the world is seldom as simple as right and wrong. The reason this place exists is because dwarves are not a favored people in China (perhaps an understatement), and have a hard time integrating into society and the workforce. It seems that there are very few jobs for them, and those that are available amount to promotional work at bars and such, badly paid and ridiculed for their efforts, they obviously struggle to live such lives.
The most obvious answer would be that things like the Dwarves empire should not exist as they only serve to increase the divide and intensify certain sentiments. How are things going to change if this goes on? I have a few issues with this mentality. The first being that it takes into account future generations around the world, but forgets entirely about those living there now. Bringing the issue closer to home, we all know that we might be doing irreparable damage to the environment, but still fly and drive everywhere, and buy countless goods straight out of the rainforest, shouldn’t we be thinking more about future generations? We all want the best life we can have, and to some degree ignore what is best for the future to insure those lives.
I was asked how would I feel in their shoes, the answer being, if my only options were living amongst a people who despised my existence, and struggling to survive financially, or, living amongst people like myself, and earning a decent wage (which apparently they do), at the expense of a few shows and being stared at for awhile. I would choose the empire.
In “An Idiot Abroad”, Carl has an argument with a dwarf actor about the morality of this place, the dwarf who lives a comfy life is against it. Yet he lives a comfy life because he sold his stature to any Snow white or Star Wars movie that comes along, the same can be said for any dwarf circus performer or actor out there. Why is it OK for them but not for these Chinese dwarves?
If your thoughts are that the way Chinese people think about dwarves needs to change, well good luck, when was the last time boycotting a hypothetical empire or putting on the pressure changed anything in China?
These dwarves, like us, have choices, sure they aren’t great choices, but they are choices nonetheless. Most people choose to do a shitty job so that they can live a certain way. In Africa a family may choose to live miles away from clean drinking water because they can be closer to other resources. Neither are ideal situations, and some more severe than others, but the point is, we make the best of what is available to us in life. The dwarves have done so, and not going to see their show despite our interest, is going to do nothing but lower their income and force them into a life they are trying desperately to get away from.
It would be great to live in a society where we are all equal, where I could play in the AFL despite having the agility and prowess of a hippo. Where I could ride a motorbike around a cage for 10 minutes and earn as much as a doctor with 10 years of training behind him. Hold on, isn’t that the basis of communism, and haven’t we in the West already decided not to go down that route?
Moral objections to something like this, are for people who have the luxury of living in a society that allows for decent options, a lot of the world is just not like that, and maybe over time it will change, and we will all magically get along and no one will care about mental prowess, physical ability, wealth, history, looks, charm, discipline, character or any of the other things which give some a better life than others, but then that doesn’t sound so great either.
It is not a black and white world, and I don’t think I would want it to be. My advice? Go see the dwarves, but go with the crowds on a dry day, and don’t look sideways if you go to the urinal.