Anyone who has traveled outside Taipei City will have noticed betel-nut beauties (檳榔西施) brightening the roadsides. Like brightly-plumed birds they flit in and out of their neon-framed stalls to serve drinks, cigarettes and the addictive nut that keeps truck drivers awake as they careen down the country's highways.
A couple of years ago a club promoter left the capital city in a convoy of three cars for a party in Kaohsiung. The goal was to stop at every betel-nut stand on the way and take pictures of the girls. It took them two days but at the end of a drunken journey they had assembled a selection of portraits for their PowerPoint presentations that ranged from "really stunning model look-alikes to skinny crack-ho messes with just two teeth."
South African documentary maker Tobie Openshaw took a different route and has compressed seven years of interviewing, filming and photographing betel-nut girls for a sensitive and decorous exhibition of 30 prints, which opened last weekend at the Hung Chong Gallery (恆昶藝廊) in Taipei.
Betel-Nut Beauty: Exploring the Art, the Beauty and Heart aims to shine new light on the subject. The oft-held thesis is betel-nut girls are young and abused. The truth is they are adults who make a reasonably well-paid choice to sell the nuts, Openshaw said.
Another thesis is betel-nut beauties are low class because they expose their bodies. As a result the occasional legislator will charge betel-nut girls with destroying the moral fabric of the nation. This is why the beauties are banned from Taipei City and told to cover up elsewhere. The truth, according to Openshaw, is singers and actresses like Jolin Tsai (蔡依林) also show off their bodies but they are looked up to for it.
"The reasons quoted for fighting this phenomenon are always wrong, always about the morals of Taiwan rather than the health of its people. I don't understand what the fuss over scantily clad women is about. The real problem is the bad effects of betel nuts, which should carry health warnings," Openshaw said, adding he had never tried one because they are cancerous, habit forming and look disgusting.
Instead, Openshaw buys coffee and cigarettes from the roadside parlors near his home in Taoyuan City before starting work in the morning at a software company. "It's a pick-me-up. I get a nice smile and that's how I got to know the girls," he said on a tour last week of his city's betel-nut hotspots.
Along with his production manager, Joy Hsieh, who interviews the women while Openshaw films or shoots, we were introduced to a number of betel-nut beauties. Petite and tattooed Hsiao Juan (小娟) wobbled around on white platform shoes as she served and talked. "I'm proud of the exhibition, it will help people get to know us,” she said.
The more conservatively dressed Hsuan Hsuan (瑄瑄), 24, is from Vietnam and came here to marry a taxi driver, with whom she has two children. She runs the betel-nut stall on her own and said business was good but she wanted to do something else.
Hsiao Ching (小晴) has the cute doll look and is in her early 20s. She said the work was not too demanding and she earned about NT$30,000 a month. Customers irritated her sometimes, she said, because they interrupted her when she was talking on the phone and Japanese tourists sometimes hung around gawping. She pointed out the TV surveillance cameras and a stun gun when we asked about security. Her problem, she said, was meeting “nice guys” who could accept her job.