The Diplomat: Betel Nut Beat

Betel nut beauties and their patrons are caught in Taiwan’s changing streetscape. (The Diplomat, Nov/Dec 2007)

Betel nut stands are as much a part of the Taiwanese landscape as the colourful Taoist temples or karaoke parlours. Roadside booths, selling the addictive drug, glow neon pink, blue and green. Inside, bathed in the garish light, sits a scantily clad ‘betel nut beauty’, dressed in a mini skirt or lingerie – sex sells betel nut as much as anything else.

As the girls are mostly young, uneducated and unskilled this is one of the few jobs they can get. Many of them are the primary wage earner in their family. If they weren’t selling betel nuts they would likely be selling their bodies or working in a factory earning less money.

The nut is a mild stimulant somewhat like chewing tobacco. The smile of a betel nut user is a mess of red gums and rotted teeth ⎯ the blood-red dye of the nut oozes over the lips, gums and into crevices. An unhinged gleam grows in the eyes of long-term users.

Betel nut is the second largest cash crop in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese farmers abandoned fruit and vegetables in favour of betel nut in the eighties when demand increased nationwide. But the profitable era of betel nut might be coming to an end.

According to the National Health Research Institute, if a user smokes, drinks and chews betel nut they are 123 times more likely to get oral cancer, and local governments are taking note. Taichung looks set to pass a ban on betel nut chewing and smoking in public by the end of this year. Apart from the health risks, councils are concerned by the mess left on the streets ⎯ large splatters of saliva mixed with the red dye of the betel nut.

The skimpy attire has also attracted legislative attention. Taipei and Taoyuan County have prohibited the beauties from exposing too much flesh. The ban is dubbed “The Three No’s”: no belly, no bottom, no breasts. Vendors found violating the ordinance face fines or the forced closure of their booth. Civil libertarians and the beauties themselves think they should be able to wear whatever they like. If singers wear revealing clothing, why can’t they?

For now, the stained smiles remain. But a change to Taiwan’s streets may be just around the corner.