The Dwarf Empire – or, to give it its full name, The World Eco Garden of Butterflies and the Dwarf Empire – is situated in the mountains of southern China near the new city of Kunming. Created in 2009, it is a tourist attraction boasting two daily performances by 100 dwarves, who live and work in an elaborate fantasy world ruled by an emperor and empress. To western eyes, it looks like a remnant of the Victorian freak show.
“In 2011, I accidentally found an image online of Chinese tourists posing with little people,” says Sanne De Wilde, a young Belgian-born, Amsterdam-based photographer. “It was a bit shocking, but it made me curious.” Shortly afterwards, having spent several weeks liaising with the owners, De Wilde travelled to China to visit the Dwarf Empire. “Nothing quite prepared me for the unreality of the place,” she says. “In the brochures, it looks colourful and a little fantastic, like a modern theme park, but the reality is much greyer and a little sad. People pay to come here, to see a song-and-dance performance, and to have their pictures taken with the little people. To westerners, it may seem voyeuristic and immoral, but this is China and – for the people who come here with their children, and for many of the performers – this is simply not an issue.”
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