Manila's little people seek their own community

Story highlights

  • Some of Manila's dwarves want to build their own community
  • Life in the provinces can be tough for people with dwarfism
  • Some have found work in a Manila bar called the Hobbit House
  • Dwarves in the Philippines have long been a staple of TV shows
Crowded, gritty, and poor, Metro Manila can be a tough place to live for just about anyone; but when you stand three feet 10 inches the odds are seriously stacked against you.
"I come from the provinces so there was no work," says 35-year-old Alejandro Doron, looking at his hands. "Farm work, using the heavy equipment, was just too hard for me."
Arriving in Manila as a 21-year-old, Alejandro - a dwarf or unano as they are called in the Philippines - tried his hand at several jobs, among them working as a show wrestler in a Manila bar.
"That was okay but it could be quite hard," he says. "It was just a show, and just on Thursdays, but sometimes you could still get hurt and you were always slipping over in the oil."
Now safely ensconced in Manila's "Hobbit House" - a dwarf-themed blues bar in Manila's scruffy Ermita district - he is part of a group of dwarves who plan to build their own community for about 30 of the city's "little people" - the preferred term for people with dwarfism.
Often isolated in the provinces, where they can be the only person in the town with dwarfism, in Manila they are less visible. Working and living together, however, makes the condition all but a normal state of affairs.
The founder of the Hobbit House, 71-year-old Jim Turner, says dwarves in the Philippines suffer the same amount of prejudice as little people anywhere else in the world.
"I think anywhere ... anywhere in the world they'd have the same problems," says Turner sitting in his usual corner of the bar, a cigarette burning in his ashtray. "People look and stare at them," he says, screwing up his face in imitation of someone who's just seen something weird.
Far from exploiting the dwarves, Turner maintains the bar gives hope and employment to people who sometimes hail from the worst slums in Manila.
"It gives them a real sense of community," he says, taking a draw on his cigarette.
A former Peace Corp volunteer who came to Manila in the 60s, Turner later worked in Filipino television in the 1970s when dwarves and transvestites were a staple fare of the film industry.
The exploitation genre - a period during the 60s, 70s and 80s when sexism, racism and so-called "carnival freaks" were regarded as a surefire recipe for a box office smash - was recently documented in an Australian film released last year called Machete Maidens Unleashed!
The B-movie genre was designed as drive-in fodder and involved risqué scenes featuring gun-toting nuns, topless female revolutionaries or martial arts-performing dwarves. The low-budget films launched the career of Filipino actor and martial artist Ernesto de la Cruz - better known as Weng Weng - who stood just 2 feet, 9 inches tall.
Starring in roles as diverse as the baby Moses in a Filipino biblical epic to a spoof on James Bond where he appeared as agent '00', Weng Weng was wildly popular in the Philippines in a genre that became know as 'dwarf TV'.
Turner became friends with several people with dwarfism and, combined with his love of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the idea for the Hobbit House was born.
It has since become so popular that he opened up a second Hobbit House in the beach resort of Boracay and the venues now attract a steady stream of little people looking for work.
"At first we were just taking anyone we could get, but now we're pretty much turning people away," he said. The bar general manager Pidoy Fetalino, who started at the Hobbit House as a cashier but now operates the bar, says they are now looking for dwarves who have good English and even college degrees.
"A few of the people we've hired haven't worked out," adds Turner.
The Hobbit House is still the first stop for casting agents looking for little people to star as extras and most of the staff at the bar describe themselves as freelancers or businesspeople.
Not only does the bar provide regular employment between gigs, it also gives the staff a chance to hone their skills - the Hobbit House has spawned a slew of diminutive Elvis impersonators, jugglers and fire eaters. One bar staff member even patrolled the premises dressed as a security guard with a Great Dane three times his size.
"I just landed a role as Santa Nino," says Alejandro, chuckling as he makes the shape of the headdress and cape of the saint. "In all my life, I never thought I would be doing something like that."
While the dream of starting a live-in community for Manila's little people is still to attract any financial backers, Alejandro is hopeful the scheme will one day come together.
"So far we don't have the money to go much further," Doron says. The group has already sourced a 40-acre site outside Manila, but the cost of developing the site and building housing is daunting.
"What can I say except that dreams do come true," he says, laughing infectiously. "There's always Santa Claus."