Mini Manila: Starting the Capital’s First-Ever Dwarf Colony
With his jet-black hair, golden skin and hazel eyes, Alejandro Doron Jr is the sort of man who regularly stops people in their tracks. He may be good-looking, yes, but he knows why people stare. He’s small. Three-feet, ten-inches small, in fact.
Just one of Manila’s many vertically challenged unanos — dwarfs — Ali is hoping to soon put an end to the harassment he says he faces daily — by starting the Philippines’ very first little people colony.
The 35-year-old bartender works at Manila’s only “dwarf bar”, the Hobbit House, where he and his colleagues — ranging in height from 2’6″ to 4’5″ — serve tourists Hefeweizens and New York rib-eye steaks as dwarf comedians and Elvis impersonators perform on stage. Just a 10-minute drive away, in the red-light district of Makati, other dwarfs don gold-and-black Speedos to perform in oil wrestling matches. Still others, from the confines of their bedrooms, undress for fascinated sex tourists.
While there are no official figures for the Philippines, dwarfism — of which there are over 200 distinct varieties — is generally characterised by a person being 4’10″ or shorter, with its most common variant, achondroplasia, thought to affect around one in 25,000 people. Manila’s highly visible little people community can be explained by the fact that many of them have come to the capital to find both work and each other, says Ali: “Otherwise, they are like me: the only dwarf in their village”, vulnerable to both physical and verbal abuse.
Critics have questioned the so-called exploitative nature of Manila’s dwarf-specific jobs like Ali’s, but for many little people in the Philippines, such work can be a godsend. While Filipinos are, on average, of short stature (measuring just 5’4″ for men and just under 5′ for women), a minimum height requirement of 5’2″ exists for many jobs — which many dwarfs say is proof of discrimination.
“I’m a computer programmer by profession, but even if you have a good resume and meet the job qualifications, [potential employers] say there’s a height restriction, so they can’t hire you,” says Jonathan Cancela, 30, who, at 4’8″, has worked for the past few years as an oil wrestler at the Ringside bar.
The Philippines have had a longstanding fascination with little people, popularised in the 1970s by TV shows and films on dwarf boxing, wrestling, comedy and kung-fu. Even today, if a little person happens to be the only dwarf in his immediate family — said to occur in around 80% of cases worldwide — popular Filipino legend dictates that the mother must have been watching “dwarf TV” while she was pregnant.
Such an interest in little people means that many of them — at least in Manila — are kept busy with work. Ali often dons fancy dress to play leprechauns and monsters for local TV, children’s parties and even “Snow White” weddings; he also recently starred as a cross-dressing, papal-robed shaman in the film Son of God.
At the three-story squat he shares with eleven others — including his own family and that of his sister’s — Ali slowly sips a glass of RC Cola while his partner Olivia, 38, who is 5’2″, rocks their one-year-old baby in her arms. Of their five children, two of them are dwarfs, and one of them, Rina, 15, has taken the day off from school.
“Some boys wanted to cause a rumble, so I am home,” she explains quietly, her 2’10″ frame the same height as her three-year-old brother’s. “It is hard for me — people say I’m small, they shout at me. But I just go to school to learn more about life. I don’t care what they say. I know what I am.”
Rina is not alone in her suffering. Her mother Olivia has fought both friends and family over her partnership with Ali, while seven-year-old Glysdi, also a dwarf, gets so much verbal abuse that “she is always crying”.
“I told them, if people talk about you, don’t listen to what they say,” says Ali, who left secondary school early due to harassment. “But it’s hard. It’s the natural attitude of the people… I prayed that all my kids would be normal, but I have no choice — this is what God gave me.”
Being free from this constant abuse, says Ali, is a major reason why he — and some 30 other dwarfs — are so keen on setting up a little people’s colony. An investor has already donated 16,000 square metres of land near Manila to their cause, but the fields still have to be cleared, the houses built, and the businesses started. Rina, who plans to be an architect, aims to design the family’s new home. But money is tight, and Ali hopes that local politicians will help with funding and that the colony will one day become a tourist hotspot.
So-called dwarf towns have existed in the past — in Coney Island at the turn of the century and more recently in Kunming, China — but not everyone agrees that they help in the long run.
“The answer is not segregation,” says Gary Arnold of the charity Little People of America. ”The answer is raising awareness about differences and doing all we can to promote communities that embrace and are inclusive of all differences.”
Dressed in children’s jeans and a t-shirt, Ali slowly winds his way back to work through alleys crowded with caged roosters and stray dogs. A neighbour, wiping away the afternoon’s heat with a handkerchief, cackles loudly as he passes. “Ooooh!” she laughs. “There goes the dwarf!”
Ali turns and smiles at her, then continues deliberately on his way.
:: FACTS ABOUT LITTLE PEOPLE ::
– Dwarfism is caused by over 200 medical conditions, with achondroplasia, a bone-growth disorder resulting in disproportionately short arms and legs, the most common.
– Dwarfism can also be caused by growth-hormone deficiency, poor nutrition and, in extreme cases, stress.
– There are thought to be some 651,000 people worldwide with some type of dwarfism.
– The term “midget” once described ‘proportionate dwarfs’ but is now considered offensive, due to its association with so-called freak shows. The terms dwarf, little person, lp, or being of ‘short stature’ or ‘restricted growth’, are preferable.
[A slightly shorter version of this article appeared in the Guardian on 1 August 2011 http://gu.com/p/3xvfg]