Who are the Betel Nut Beauties?

This guest blog is by Ava Apollo. When she’s not writing for MSW, she’s blogging about adventure travel at bemytravelmuse.com

Have you ever found yourself taking a drive down a roadside in Taiwan, when out of the corner of your eye you catch a scantily-clad la mei (“hot” girl) working behind glass walls? Whether you have or not, I bet now you’re intrigued.

Now I bet you're definitely intrigued

I was on a bus heading out of Taipei a few years ago, staring out the window as I always do on long journeys, and felt completely shocked when I saw a pretty girl, on a random roadside, wearing lingerie and sitting in a little class cube. What in the wooorrllld is she doing there? I wondered.

My friends told me she was a bin lang xi shi (檳榔西施), or betel nut girl.

Okay, so what is a betel nut and why is a lingerie model selling it?

First thing’s first: A “betel” nut, is actually an Acreca nut – the seed of an Acreca palm tree – wrapped in betel leaves. It is common in Asia to chew it – a practice that dates back thousands of years. When the nut and the leaves are combined, the byproduct is psychoactive drug (some say the effect is much like cigarette smoking) that can be further increased by the addition of tobacco. Unfortunately, like chewing tobacco, long-term chewing of betel nuts leads to cancer of the mouth, and has even been linked to type 2 diabetes, along with many other diseases.

You can be pretty certain someone is chewing betel nut if his/her mouth appears red, and his/her spit looks like blood.

It’s a little freaky.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the beauties:

They come in a shiny little box

While betel nut is enjoyed throughout Asia, betel nut beauties are unique to Taiwan. They typically set up shop in rather small (typically 3 x 2 meters) shops marked by green neon lights that frame the windows. Customers drive up outside and wait for the betel nut girls to run out and offer them nuts, cigarettes, and/or liquor. These girls are popular. In fact, Taiwanderful tells me the betel nut is actually Taiwan’s second largest agricultural crop.

Imagine that.

It is rumoured that the first betel nut girls brought “glamour” to the opening of a betel nut shop back in the 1960s. The opening was so successful that other shops began following suit. Before long, betel nut girls began peddling their wares all along Taiwan’s countryside and urban cities. They have even been the object of two Taiwanese films over the past decade.

Christine Wu, PhD, has been studying the betel nut beauties for years. She conducted an interview of 300 girls and deduced that “Most betel nut beauties are from underprivileged families, and most of them take the job because they have to make a living”.

Many of these beauties hail from farming and working-class families. Coincidentally, they tend to sell to working-class people and truck drivers. Betel nut beauties also often work long hours, typically throughout the night, all while wearing high heels and a smile.

I mean, it seems easy enough:

Step 1: Be hot, wear very little clothing.

Step 2: Count beans.

Step 3: Sell beans.

Step 4: Profit.

A betel nut girl peddles her wares

Yet, I’m left wondering, do they feel empowered by their bodies and their jobs or do they feel exposed and used? Are they simply beautiful little dolls in their shiny roadside boxes or is this a means to an end for them? Do they have to dress skimpy or can they wear “normal” clothing? Do they only sell products or do they sell themselves as well?

“In this business, sex sells. Skimpy outfit is considered the uniform,” said Edison Chang, the owner of a betel nut booth in Shulin District, New Taipei City. “I don’t personally ask my employees to wear less to sell, but if they’re willing, I have no problem with it.” (www.culture.tw.com)

Based on everything I’ve read, it sounds like despite their appearance, they have fairly strict personal boundaries.

Tobie Openshaw, who has been photographing the beauties for years in an effort to tell their story (all of the photos in this blog were taken by him), had this to say: “The difference is that here, you don’t get the woman in the box, you get betel nuts, drinks, and sure, a look at a pretty girl, a smile and a few nice words. The transaction doesn’t take anything from the woman, physically.”

Good to know.

But what about empowerment? Well, many betel nut beauties are single mothers or immigrants. Many of them have higher aspirations and see this as a means to an end. Some beauties even own their own booths, further empowering them as self-employed women who can earn around $50,000 yearly – about twice as much as a fresh Taiwanese college grad can expect to make.

Of course, they get push-back from locals as well as from authorities who often tell them to cover up or even harass them. Some buyers try to touch them or take it too far. Some locals consider them propagators of a vulgar betel-nut culture and compare them to prostitutes or strippers. I suspect this is because rather than behind closed doors, these women very openly dress scantily.

I find this all a bit hypocritical, really. If we had issues with women who posed in lingerie, we’d have to give lingerie models a call and ask them to cover up. We’d also have to tell most pop stars (including Taiwan’s Jolin Tsai) to put more clothing on.

In closing, it seems as though betel nut beauties are hard-working females who need to earn a living, and this is one of the more lucrative ways to do so. Of course, there are many things to be concerned with: public health, degradation of women, public perception, and even environmental costs of planting the crop, if you want to take it a step further. But love them or hate them, there is no doubt that betel nut beauties are a unique part of Taiwanese culture.

At least for now, they’re here to stay.

Follow Ava on Twitter and connect with her on Facebook.

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Posted in CULTURAL TRAVEL, Taiwan | Tagged , , | 8 Replies

About Ava Apollo

Ava Apollo grew up in Southern California where she had exposure to a wide variety of languages and cultures. After her University years, Ava spent a year in Taipei where her love of Travel, Chinese language, and writing were intensified. Ava has since returned to California, however, she remains a lover of writing about Asia and traveling the world. Find her on twitter: www.twitter/.com/avaapollo and her travel blog bemytravelmuse.com.

8 thoughts on “Who are the Betel Nut Beauties?

  1. lara dunston

    Great story! I guess they’re like the cigarette girls that we see in classic American/British/Australian films that were around from the 1920s through to the 1960s, selling cigarettes from trays that hung around their necks in ritzy restaurants, clubs, and casinos…they also wore skimpy outfits that were risque for the day.

    Reply
  2. Jack Norell

    Great article. I’m quite happy that my initial parallels to the ‘window girls’ in Amsterdam weren’t appropriate. Now *that* really threw me going there. I’m assuming that the betel nut girls can at times have a risky job, but it sounds like, overall, they’re getting ahead rather than being exploited. Can’t be a nice job though, (apparently) being on high heels all day is murder, no matter how much you do it.

    Reply
  3. Josh

    Great article – both with Tobie’s photos and the narrative by Ava. They also remind me of the beer girls (“pijou xiaojie” I think?) at bars and restaurants – I wonder if any comparisons/contrasts can be made between the two?

    Reply
  4. faizal

    Had a pleasure of being involved in a military exercise in Kaohsiung once and these betel nut ladies were everywhere! Not that anyone from my motor transport unit is complaining, they’re a very very welcome sight after long hard days of driving around the countryside. Think some of them have uniform fetishes as they were all over us when we pull up. Then again, it must just have been a marketing guise – hard to tell since I can only speak a few phrases of Mandarin :)

    PS : Hello C :)

    Reply

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