A Taiwanese roadside attraction
Sexy 'betel nut beauties' push addictive snack, boosting age-old industry and raising debate
TAIPEI–Lee sits on a bar stool in a Plexiglas box near a highway off-ramp in central Taiwan. It's late afternoon and the 29-year-old is dressed in a red negligee, a fake rose planted 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 metres away, "he takes all the money."
Lee isn't selling her body. In fact, she's using her body to sell a spicy, addictive snack called betel nuts.
Lee, who won't give her first name, is a "betel nut beauty," one of thousands of women along Taiwan's highways who sell the datelike fruit of the areca palm to truckers and mostly working-class customers.
The practice has been cheered by male customers, condemned by feminist groups, decried by health professionals and studied by sociologists keen to understand the island's "betel nut culture."
The aggressive sales tactics are credited with jump-starting a ho-hum industry: After rice, betel nuts have supplanted sugar cane as Taiwan's second-largest crop.
Chewed 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 for delivering a mild buzz similar to cigarettes.
On the downside, chewing betel nuts can lead to red-stained teeth, drooling, red-splotched sidewalks and oral cancer.
The nut's history dates to China's Six Dynasties period (A.D. 220-589), when it was a gift for royalty. Taiwan has moved this royal indulgence down-market to include betel nut soap, liquor and chicken feed.
But the main seller is on the roadside, where packages of betel nuts go 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."
Outsiders often think the betel-nut industry is a cover for prostitution. Some cases might exist, but pulling 12-hour shifts in a plastic box isn't conducive to the world's oldest profession, amply served by barber shops and escort services.
Most betel nut stands feature glaring neon lights and a mirror to draw attention to the women.
Many women recruited by booth owners are school dropouts, single parents or runaways from lower socio-economic backgrounds, says Christian Wu, an artist and scholar and unofficial "Minister of Betel Nut Beauties," declared 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 to raids, allowing them to hide underage workers.
A commission system allows the women to decide how they want to dress, and some earn $50,000 (U.S.) a year. This has prompted a debate over whether the industry empowers women or exploits them.
Betel nut beauties say owners give new recruits basic tips on how to dress and act, but, ultimately, the women develop their own style. Competition gets fierce, 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 a former seller. "But there are a fixed number of drivers coming by. And if she's got good sales skills, she can steal away 50 per cent of the business."
The origin of betel nut beauties is uncertain. According to one story, in the early 1990s, two good-looking sisters started selling nuts on the roadside, wearing sleeveless outfits. They sold more than their older competitors and spurred copycats.
In 1997, Wu travelled to central Taiwan, 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 criticism and calls for regulation.
"There used to be a lot more betel nut girls," says a seller in a black bikini. "But two years ago the police started cracking down on us for wearing too little."
Health concerns also have 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 officials to call for warnings on packages. Today, some bags have warnings, but the rule is not always enforced.
Critics also worry about moral implications.
"There's an element of treating women like toys," says Wang Julu, a sociologist at National Tsing Hua University.
Others counter that scantily clad women sell things everywhere, including designer clothes.
"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."
All the gawking can also create problems, Cheng says. "Guys are so busy looking, they crash."
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Feb 02, 2009 04:30 AM