Mon, Mar 12, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Why pick on betel-nut beauties?

By Huang Wan-tran 黃萬傳

Most Taiwanese have a negative impression of betel nut and betel-nut beauties, which could be the result of class consciousness. However, a couple days ago, the media reported that foreigners were curious about the betel-nut beauty phenomenon and even treated it as a unique culture. Why do locals and foreigners have such differing views?

The Materia Medica, an ancient Chinese treatise on medicinal plants, says that the betel nut was considered a medicinal item, while the Food Sanitation and Management Act (食品衛生管理法) considers it as a food item. In Aboriginal culture, betel nuts are a treat offered to special guests, while in traditional Taiwanese culture, they were one of 12 engagement gifts.

Betel-nut prices and production rose significantly in the mid-1970s, but today, prices have dropped and production remains stable. The total number of betel-nut chewers -- colloquially known as "the red-lipped people" -- is estimated at 3.5 million.

Betel-nut beauties made their first appearance with the "Shuangdong Girls" at the Shuangdong Betel Nut Stand, which opened in Guoxing Township (國姓鄉), Nantou County, in the late 1960s.

The social benefits of the betel nut industry -- to the producers, distributors, retailers and consumers -- outweigh the social costs. Farmers in rural areas support their families and pay for their children's schooling by selling betel nuts. There are also tens of thousands of betel nut distributors and retailers, in addition to the betel-nut beauties who earn their own money with the dignity that this implies.

Betel-nut stands also fill many other functions: drivers consult them for directions and police consult them for local information.

In terms of social costs, the betel-nut industry affects water and soil conservation, chewing betel nuts can cause cancer and thus increase health expenditures and illegal betel-nut stands may worsen traffic conditions.

As far as markets go, transportation and sale of betel nut is fairly systematic. Prices are are set in 1,000-nut units during each stage of the process, with fixed price intervals to guarantee profits for producers, delivery people and retailers.

In terms of marketing, betel-nut brands can be compared to cars or cigarettes. Users are picky about the quality and have their own preferences, which means that better brand really equals better quality. Betel-nut beauties are part of the sales strategy, fulfilling the same function as those scantily-clad girls at automobile, computer and information exhibitions. And yet they are still looked down upon due to individual or class consciousness.

Be it the Council of Agriculture, the Department of Health, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, the Ministry of the Interior or social groups, all have a negative impression of betel nuts and betel-nut beauties and would like to eliminate them. However, chewing betel nut is a hobby for many people, just as is smoking, or drinking alcohol or tea.

But just like cigarette butts, chewed-out betel nuts can pollute our environment.

The government should regulate the production of betel nuts the same way it does tobacco or tea to protect slope lands. Farmers do not have to use as much pesticides to protect betel nut plantations as they do for tea.

Since health authorities define betel nut as a kind of food, it should certainly be treated as a food, which means that the Ministry of Economic Affairs should regulate it as a food product, and vendors should be required to register as businesses and pay business taxes. Other government ministries should assist legal betel-nut producers and vendors and adopt the same attitude they have toward showgirls at automobile, computer and information exhibitions.

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