They’re spicing up the betel nut
Lee sits on a bar stool in a plexiglass box near a highway offramp in central Taiwan. It’s late afternoon and the 29-year-old is dressed in a red negligee, a fake rose planted firmly between her breasts.
“I work from noon to midnight, and it’s psychologically tiring,” she says. “Furthermore,” she adds, pointing to her husband a few yards away, “he takes all the money.”
Before you jump to conclusions, she isn’t selling her body. In fact, she’s using her body to sell . . . a spicy, addictive snack called betel nuts.
Lee, who doesn’t want to give her first name, is a “betel nut beauty,” one of thousands of women along Taiwan’s highways hawking the date-like fruit of the areca palm to truckers and other mostly working-class customers.
The practice has been cheered on by male customers, condemned by feminist groups, decried by health professionals and pored over by sociologists keen to understand the island’s “betel nut culture.” But the aggressive sales tactics are credited with jump-starting a ho-hum industry: Betel nuts have supplanted sugar cane as Taiwan’s second-largest crop, after rice.
Chewed widely in parts of Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan and the South Pacific, the betel nut is a stimulant popular as a hunger suppressant, breath freshener, tobacco substitute or simply for getting a mild buzz. Then there’s the downside. Chewing betel nuts, which gives a kick akin to cigarettes, can lead to red-stained teeth, drooling, red-splotched sidewalks and oral cancer.
The betel nut’s distinguished history dates to China’s Six Dynasties period (220-589), when it was a treasured gift for royalty. In more recent years, Taiwan has moved this royal indulgence decidedly down-market. Now you can get betel nut soap, betel nut liquor, even betel nut chicken feed.
But the main show is roadside -- a cheap thrill, given that packages sell for a dollar or two.
“Basically, men are randy,” says taxi driver Cheng Chunho, dipping into a plastic bag of “Hi Class Beetle Nut Crispy & Tasty.” “I don’t even like the stuff. But after a long day of driving, buying it provides a bit of excitement.”
Suggestively dressed women in neon boxes on lonely highways would spell serious trouble in most countries. But attacks are rare, a fact sociologists attribute to Taiwan’s relatively nonviolent, reserved culture.
Outsiders often assume the industry is a cover for prostitution. Although some cases may exist, experts say, doing 12-hour shifts in a glass box isn’t exactly conducive to “the world’s oldest profession,” which is amply served by the island’s many barber shops and escort services.
“Everyone has preconceived notions, but they’re not necessarily true,” says Tobie Openshaw, a photographer who has chronicled this salacious but socially accepted world. “They are underdogs, misunderstood, real people with real dreams.”
Most stands feature glaring neon lights and a large mirror designed to draw attention to the women. Not exactly subtle, but it stops traffic. At which point the women teeter to the curb in their high heels, bend into the car window suggestively and hand over a couple of packets of betel nuts and a plastic cup for drivers to spit into.
Many of the women recruited by the booth owners are dropouts, single parents or runaways from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, says Christian Wu, an artist and scholar, named the unofficial “Minister of Betel Nut Beauties” by Taiwan’s Art Critic magazine for her long-standing work with the community.
“The average age is 14 to 17,” Wu says. “By 20, you’re often too old.”
The businesses are legal, but many are owned by gangsters who bribe police to alert them of pending raids, allowing them to hide underage workers. Where women once faced pressure from heavy-handed owners, a commission system now puts more of the onus on the women to decide how they want to dress, allowing some to earn upward of $50,000 a year. This has prompted a debate in Taiwan’s academia over whether they are being empowered or exploited.
Current and former betel nut beauties say owners give new recruits some basic tips on what to wear and how to act -- let your hand linger when passing off the nuts, wear an oversized bra, smile, wave at motorists -- but ultimately the women develop their own style.
Competition can get particularly fierce, especially in summer, when harvests mean there’s more to sell. But selling is about more than just looks.
“If a new girl with a beautiful face shows up but she’s stupid, there isn’t much competition,” says one seller who left the industry and keeps her past a secret. “But there are a fixed number of drivers coming by. And if she’s got good sales skills, she can steal away 50% of the business.”
The exact origin of betel nut beauties is a matter of some debate. A recurrent story has it that somewhere around Nantau in central Taiwan in the early 1990s, two good-looking young sisters started selling the nuts on the roadside, wearing sleeveless outfits. That led to far better sales than their older, more homely competitors, and spurred copycats.
In 1997, artist Wu traveled to the area looking for the sisters. “But wherever I went and asked, everyone there claimed they were the original beauties,” she says.
As the industry has become more successful -- by some estimates earning hundreds of millions of dollars annually and employing 2.5 million people -- it has drawn more critics and calls for regulation.
“There used to be a lot more betel nut girls,” a seller in the city of Gueijen says between trips to the curb, dressed in a tiny black bikini with a gold belt. “But two years ago the police started cracking down on us for wearing too little.”
Health concerns have also grown: Oral cancer cases in Taiwan rose to 4,750 in 2004 from 1,790 in 1994, an increase the government blames on betel nut use. A study by the World Health Organization in 2003 linking betel nut use to cancer prompted island health officials to campaign against its use and call for health warnings on packages. Today, some bags have warnings, but because distributors do their own packaging, the rule is not always enforced.
Beyond the health considerations, social critics complain about moral implications.
“There’s an element of treating women like toys,” says Wang Julu, a sociologist at National Tsing Hua University.
Others, however, counter that condemning the trade is a bit hypocritical given that scantily clad women sell things everywhere, including designer clothes on runways.
“These things exist in any society,” says Hwang Shu-ling, a sociologist at Taipei’s National Defense Medical Center. “After all, the U.S. has topless bars. The thing that makes Taiwan’s betel nut industry different is that it’s more extreme and it’s all out in public.”
Jane Ke, 33, a high school teacher, says she’s not particularly offended if the women wear tight clothes. “I wouldn’t dream of sitting in a glass booth in my bathing suit, but those women have their financial concerns,” she says. “It’s their own choice, and I’m sure they work hard.”
Lee in the Taipei suburbs says many of her competitors wear far less than she does. “I don’t show my sensitive bits,” she says. “Even then, men sometimes yell at you. And some are psycho, even exposing themselves. When that happens, I just curse at them and try to tell them not to embarrass themselves.”
All the gawking can also create safety problems. “Guys are so busy looking, they crash,” taxi driver Cheng says.
But in some cases, the women call 911 to report the crash, says Wang, the sociologist.
“So while they cause the accident, they also help alleviate the damage.”