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.
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:
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.
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.
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.