Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Betel Nut Girls NOT Beetle Nut Girls

The betel (not beetle!) nut girls of Taiwan… are definitely a unique phenomenon and have become a part of Taiwanese culture. It’s quite a curiosity and somewhat of a controversial issue in Taiwan. I think that it’s a topic deserving of explanation.

Betel nuts have been called “Taiwan’s chewing gum” but the use and sale of betel nuts would not be similarly described as wholesome. Olive-sized betel nuts are a mildly narcotic stimulant and are especially popular among Taiwan’s manual laborers and truck and taxi drivers who use it to get a much needed jolt of energy to get through their long work days. The department of health has reported that close to 11% of Taiwan’s population regularly chew betel nuts. The nut is usually sprinkled with spices and flavorings and served wrapped in a leaf; it is chewed and the betel nut juice is spit out leaving behind bright crimson stains that assault Taiwan’s roads and landscape. Betel nuts have been around for decades and are Taiwan’s second largest cash crop.

I remember my first visit to Taiwan in the late 1980’s and noticing the crimson stains that appeared with a strange regularity on the streets. Then I experienced my first taxi ride in Taiwan, complete with a typical taxi driver who drove without caution in a stop and go fashion- not because we were in stop and go traffic- but because chewing betel nuts often required frequent stops to spit out betel juice. One driver kept opening and closing his door to spit out the side of the taxi- it wasn’t enough to just spit out the window! The crimson stains mounted like debts being paid on the health of betel nut chewers. A betel nut chewer has 28 more times a chance of contracting oral cancer and greater chances of developing other oral diseases. In comparison, a person who drinks increases their chances of developing oral cancer by 10 times and a smoker’s chances increases by 18 times.

Betel nuts were and still are sold at stalls lined along the streets. The idea of hiring scantily-clad betel nut girls aka “betel nut beauties” to sell the nuts in order to attract the predominantly male customer base, originated in the Neihu district of Taipei in 1996. Soon after, the phenomena spread throughout the island. The betel nut beauties are especially prominent near freeway access roads, giving them more visibility to truck drivers and manual laborers, their prime customers. Betel nut vendors have erected glass boxes and installed these betel nut beauties who are clad in provocative attire to peak the interest of truck drivers. Driving along remote roads on the outskirts of a city, en route to a freeway, these betel nut stalls appear more frequently than any convenience stores or gas stations. When I first noticed this occurrence, I just assumed that the young women in the glass boxes were probably selling drinks or snacks for weary travelers. But when you take a closer look, you will see that there isn’t much else in that glass box except for one “hot mamma.” In some areas where competition is fierce, betel nut beauties have been seen wearing nothing but a see through dress or a G- string. Yes, apparently one friend has indeed seen them go au natural on the top half. I for one haven’t gotten an eyeful of this yet.

As long as this ploy continues to work in attracting customers, betel nut vendors will continue employing these young women. Banning public chewing of betel nuts and betel nut beauties has proven difficult. If even just one betel nut seller uses a betel nut girl, other betel nut sellers feel pressure to follow suit to attract customers. There are several legislators who want to crackdown on the betel nut business. There has been a noticeable decrease in the use of betel nuts in the last ten years. Taipei especially, has been cleaned up, but in other parts of Taiwan the betel nut beauties are still prevalent.

This practice will probably not end unless it is linked to prostitution or something tragic happens to jeopardize the safety of the betel nut girls. Their safety has been of concern since they work at all hours, leading some betel nut vendors to install surveillance cameras in the glass kiosks.

The betel nut beauties have been accused of damaging the nation’s morality, and yes, of causing car accidents in Taiwan.

Recently, there has been a campaign against betel nuts 1) in order to ban the spitting and use of betel nuts- to clean up Taiwan, 2) to educate the public about the health risks of these nuts and 3) in response to the moral uproar over betel nut girls. Some believe that these women are a part of Taiwan’s grassroots culture that they can’t and shouldn’t be outlawed. Others believe that the betel nut girls are eroding the nation’s morals, creating an environment that is inhospitable to young women and their self image. The betel nut girls are reflective of how the society views and objectifies women’s bodies.


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