Scantily clad young women sitting inside brightly-lit glass kiosks with flashing lights and neon signs are a common sight along Taiwan's streets. When cars pull up, the women totter out in high heels and miniskirts to deal with customers through the passenger-side windows. But these ladies are not selling sex, they are peddling betel nuts.
Betel nut is a fruit from the areca palm tree that is found in abundance in many Southeast Asian countries including India. It is chewed wrapped with betel leaves, sometimes with tobacco and slaked lime, but the bright red juice that it produces is spat out. Betel juice stains can be found on walls and footpaths throughout south-east Asia. The nut is taken for its stimulating and psychoactive effects, and is a popular alternative to chewing tobacco. It is the world's fourth-most popular psychoactive substance after nicotine, alcohol and caffeine. Chewing betel nut is said to produce an euphoric and warm feeling. Add the ladies in skimpy outfits, and you get an even headier mix.
According to the Wikipedia article, the original betel nut beauties were the "Shuangdong Girls" who, in the 1960s, brought glamour to the opening of the Shuangdong Betel Nut Stand in Guoxing Township, Nantou County. The success of the marketing strategy may have led competitors to follow suit, but the phenomenon really exploded only in the early 1990s when Taiwanese companies started moving factories to China in an effort to cut labor costs. This caused widespread unemployment particularly among the unskilled labor force.
Taiwan has more than 100,000 betel-nut booths, and 60,000 of these are run by the beauties. They have become a trademark feature of Taiwan's cities and countryside, and were once featured on tourist guides. Their clientele consist mostly of male truck and taxi drivers who are drawn by the allure of both the natural stimulant and the good looking girls who sell it. The women are mostly from poor families, but they earn significantly more than waitresses and cleaners, and even more than starting university graduates.
But authorities have been cracking down on these women for the past few years. Conservatives see the provocatively dressed women as morally degrading while police blame them for causing car accidents. The girls themselves are vulnerable to physical and verbal sexual harassment. In 2007, betel nut beauties were banned within the city limits of the capital Taipei. Their numbers have been slowly declining and a stricter dress code enforced by the authorities have seen sales plummeting. Today they are clustered outside the city limits, but with their brightly lit all-glass booths, it’s hard to miss them.
This article has been revised and republished from an earlier article that appeared on Amusing Planet on September 6, 2009.
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