Lee sits on a bar stool in a plexiglass 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 yards 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 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.”
But the aggressive sales tactics are credited with jump-starting a ho-hum industry: after rice, betel nuts now supplant 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 getting a mild buzz similar to cigarettes. There is a 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 (AD 220-589), when it was a treasured gift for royalty. In recent years, Taiwan has moved this royal indulgence down-market to include betel-nut soap, betel-nut liquor, even betel-nut chicken feed.
But the main show is roadside where packages of betel nuts sell for a dollar or two.
“I don’t even like the stuff,” says taxi driver Cheng Chunho, dipping into a plastic bag of “Hi Class Beetle Nut Crispy & Tasty.”
“But after a long day of driving, buying it provides a bit of excitement.”
Suggestively dressed women on lonely highways would spell serious trouble in many countries. But attacks are rare, a fact sociologists attribute to Taiwan’s relatively nonviolent, reserved culture.
Outsiders often assume the betel-nut industry is a cover for prostitution. Although some cases may exist, doing 12-hour shifts in a plastic box isn’t exactly conducive to “the world’s oldest profession,” which is 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. It stops traffic. The women hand over packets of betel nuts and a plastic cup for drivers to spit into.
Many of the women recruited by booth owners are dropouts, single parents or runaways from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, says Christian Wu, an artist and scholar and unofficial “Minister of Betel-Nut Beauties” 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.
Where women once faced pressure from heavy-handed owners, a commission system now puts the onus on the women to decide how they want to dress, allowing some to earn $50,000 a year. This has prompted a debate over whether the industry empowers women or exploits them.
Former betel-nut beauties say owners give new recruits some basic tips on what to wear and how to act, but, ultimately, the women develop their own style.
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 one seller who left the industry. “But there are a fixed number of drivers coming by. And if she’s got good sales skills, she can steal away 50 percent of the business.”
The origin of betel-nut beauties is uncertain.
According to one story, in central Taiwan in the early 1990s, two good-looking young sisters started selling nuts on the roadside, wearing sleeveless outfits. That led to more sales than their older competitors and spurred copycats.
In 1997, Wu traveled to the area 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 critics and calls for regulation.
“There used to be a lot more betel-nut girls,” says a seller dressed in a black bikini with a gold belt in the city of Gueijen. “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 island health officials to call for health warnings on packages.
Today, some bags have warnings, but the rule is not always enforced.
Beyond the health considerations, critics complain about moral implications.
“There’s an element of treating women like toys,” says Wang Julu, a sociologist at National Tsing Hua University.
Others, however, counter that condemning the trade is hypocritical because scantily clad women sell things everywhere, including designer clothes on runways.
“These things exist in any society,” says Hwang Shu-ling, a sociologist at Taipei’s National Defense Medical Center. “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 safety problems.
“Guys are so busy looking, they crash,” Cheng says.
But in some cases, the women call to report the crash, says Wang. “So while they cause the accident, they also help alleviate the damage.”
Los Angeles Times