|Beautiful Objects in a Shiny Box
Driving along some provincial roads in Taiwan, there’s something you can hardly miss: sexy-looking women sitting behind glass-walled booths usually located close to major transportation junctions, such as highway exits, bridge exits, and in most industrial areas. Whenever vehicle drivers decide to stop for a drink, buy a pack of cigarettes or a box of betel nuts, women in the booths, often wearing skimpy outfits, would sell them what they needed. These attractive and relatively young women are called Betel Nut Beauties, or Bin Lang Xi Shi（檳榔西施）in Mandarin.
Betel nut is the seed of betel palm, or areca catechu, chewed with betel leaves, lime, and flavoring as a mild stimulant. It is mildly addictive and habit-forming. Growing betel palms has been a lucrative business. Both production and consumption grew rapidly between 1970s and 1990s. Despite the following decline, in 2006, the value of production is still up to NT$ 10 billion, according to the statistics from the Council of Agriculture, Executive Yuan.
As betel nut selling becomes more competitive, sellers try to boost their sales by hiring young girls attractive to buyers, who are mostly long-distance truck drivers and blue collar workers. These Betel Nut Beauties try every effort to lure customers with their beautiful appearance. Taiwan’s betel nut beautiesare unique when compared to betel nut vendors in Southeast Asia, the origin of the plant. Hence they draw the attention of both local and international media, sociologists, artists, and even foreign photographers.
Tobie Openshaw, a South Africa born documentary photographer, has been taping and capturing images of betel nut beauties for more than 6 years. His flickr album contains a collection of about 200 photos which reached 330,000 clicks in Oct. 2008(http://www.flickr.com/photos/tobie_openshaw/). The Internet has countless pictures of Taiwan’s betel nut beauties, but Openshaw’s lenses focus not only on how they look but also who they are.
“People just drive by,” said Openshaw. “They only stay for a few seconds with the girls. But if you have a photo on the wall in an exhibition, then you can stand and look. Look into their eyes, and see something about the real person, people will think again about these girls after viewing my photos, and that’s one of my biggest pleasures.”
Openshaw started the project out of curiosity. He heard of the rumors about betel nut girls and decided to check how true they were. After years of efforts, he got to know some of them, mostly in the Taoyuan area, and found out that they are quite different from the rumors.
Ada, for example, is one betel nut beauty who allowed Openshaw to photograph and tape her during her 3 working years. “Ada knows exactly what is the nature of the transaction, and what her role is in that and how’s that affecting her, which is why she had a plan to get out of it,” said Openshaw. “Betel nut beauties deserve more respect than they receive now.”
Beauties in the artist’s eye
Christine Wu has also been studying the beauties for more than a decade. She received a PhD from the Department of Art Creation at the American Purlinton University in 2006. Wu interviewed more than 300 betel nut beauties around Taiwan, so she knows the demographics well.
“Most betel nut beauties are from underprivileged families, and most of them take the job because they have to make a living,” said Wu. “High school drop-outs, girls from single-parent families, struggling college students, immigrants from Southeast Asia and even gays comprise the demography of these Taiwan beauties.”
Market forces rarely influence Wu’s art work and she considers the work and appearance of betel nut beauties as a form of art instead of porn. “If you think of porn when you see them, that’s because you see them through a pornographic filter,” she said.
“I have been working on the issue for more than a decade, and I still pay attention to it because I would like to create a collective memory for Taiwanese people. I want to present betelnut beauties in art forms. This is a cultural phenomenon that shows Taiwan’s vitality.”
Wu has been working on this issue for more than a decade and believes that this phenomenon should form part of Taiwan’s collective memory. “They are an expression of Taiwan’s vitality,” she said.
Since 1998, she has been holding exhibitions on this topic and the Art Critic magazine named her Minister of Betel Nut Beauties.
The business angle
“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.”
Chang’s betel nut booth is a joint venture. He has a full time job during the daytime. His shop opened in September this year, and he is hiring salesgirls to cover business hours from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next morning.
“I hire girls who are good looking, friendly, have nice figures, and good communication skills,” he said. “The goal is to keep customers coming back.”
Betel nut beauties work long hours. Girls in Chang’s booth work 9 hours a day, while in another booth in the same area, the saleswomen as well as the owner Hsiaowen, works 14 hours a day. Her shop opens from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. And during most of the time, she stands in high heels waiting for customers to come.
Hsiaowen has been selling betelnuts for 7 years. Half Thai and half Chinese, she bought a shop after working for 5 months. “To work for somebody else and split the revenue is just not cost- effective,” said Hsiaowen in fluent Mandarin. “I am 30 years old. I plan to work until I am 35, then I want to study law.”
As a self-employed betel nut beauty, Hsiaowen works six days a week. On Sundays, she usually just sleeps in. “I don’t have time for friends or leisure.”
Neko Wen, 36, works at a betel nut booth in Hsintien City and raises a 9 year-old daughter on her own. She became a betel nut beauty 3 months ago after her jewelry business at a night market failed. The booth is open 24 hrs a day, and Wen usually works the night shift, from 12 a.m.-7 a.m.
“There’s nothing good about being a betel nut beauty; I do this only to earn a living,” said Wen. “We don’t get respect from most people and have to put up with language abuse all the time.”
A never-ending discussion
In the well-known red light district in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, women display their wares in neon-lit glass windows. They trade their bodies for money. In Taiwan, betel nut beauties sell betel nuts, drinks and cigarettes in glass booths.
“There are resemblances in the way a woman is packaged--a beautiful object in a beautiful box,” said Openshaw. “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.”
According to Openshaw, majority of the girls he met are strict about their personal boundaries.
In 2002, Taoyuan County Government issued a policy mandating betel nut beauties to cover up their breasts, bellies, and hips. To researchers in gender studies, this is an issue that touches on female working rights and emancipation of the female body.
The Center for the Study of Sexualities in National Central University has been promoting the self-empowerment of betel nut beauties. Citing other occupations that also involve female nudity, for example, show girls, female liquor promoters, nude models for artistic purposes, pole dancers, or even popular Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai. The underlying notion is that is there are differences in degrees of female nudity?
The betel nut beauty phenomenon is a multifold issue. Studies done come from different fields and provide diverse gender-sensitive aspects. But no matter in what form they take, they are all part of an endless debate.