Wed, Sep 16, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Betelnut buzz

Betelnut T-shirt brand pays homage to Taiwanese culture with a satirical — but affectionate — twist

By Catherine Shu  /  STAFF REPORTER

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Betelnut (榔), a T-shirt brand that pays cheeky homage to Taiwanese culture, was partly inspired by a trip to California.

After co-founder Tom Tang (湯忠謙) graduated from art school, he worked in San Francisco for several months. The graphic designer was impressed by the effort he saw colleagues investing in side projects.

“They spent a lot of time developing their own products and brands. When I got back to Taiwan, I wondered how we could do the same thing, but with a Taiwanese take,” says Tang.

“I had to think about what symbolized life in Taiwan. One day I was walking down the street and I thought, ‘What do we have a lot of? Betelnut stands!’” he says. “They don’t have a positive connotation, but we thought we could give them our own twist and turn it into a T-shirt brand.”

Betelnut was launched in 2005 by Tang and Ma Chunfu (馬君輔). Its T-shirts, hats and canvas bags are sold at Betelnut’s Ximending store in Red House Theater (西門紅樓).

The brand’s first T-shirt was created by Sandy Chen (陳芝螢), Tang’s wife, and is still a top seller. It features a squirrel hugging a betelnut to its chest while one huge, dilated pupil stares out.

“She figured everyone thinks of squirrels as searching for acorns, but why not picture one with a betelnut instead?” says Tang.

Other bestsellers include a series called Develop a Good Habit (養成好習慣) by illustrator Kuo Yenting (郭彥庭) of brand Uglyfamily (www.wretch.cc/blog/uglyfamily). Each T-shirt is inspired by cheerful illustrations of students that appeared on Taiwanese elementary school notebooks in the 1980s — only in Kuo’s decidedly unwholesome versions, the students are smoking, beating each other up and, yes, chewing betelnut.

STORE NOTES:

Betelnut (榔)

ADDRESS: Red House Theater (西門紅樓), 10 Chengdu Rd, Taipei City

(台北市成都路10號)

OPEN: Sundays to Tuesdays from 2pm to 9:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays

from 2pm to 10pm

TELEPHONE: 0968-080-583

ON THE NET: betelnutco.blogspot.com


“Kids are growing up faster nowadays and these T-shirts address that,” says Tang.

“The illustrations are something that is unique to Taiwanese culture and part of our collective memory,” adds Ma. “You don’t see these illustrations on notebooks any more, but anyone who grew up here still recognizes the style instantly.”

Other Betelnut T-shirts go even further in testing the bounds of propriety. A new design that made its debut at Taiwan Designers’ Week (台灣設計師週) last month tweaks Hello Kitty’s innocent image by showing the iconic cat on her knees in front of Mickey Mouse, whose trademark red shorts are pulled down around his ankles.

“We wanted to show the design to women first and see what they thought,” says Ma. “It isn’t meant to be misogynistic. For one thing, Hello Kitty doesn’t have a mouth, so she can’t give blowjobs. And as you can see, she has a giant pair of scissors hidden by her side.”

“I think for the most part our female customers have been okay with it, but to be honest, I think some guys have been unsettled by the imagery,” says Ma. “Some customers have said we should put this design on underpants instead of T-shirts.”

The ill-fated Hello Kitty/Mickey Mouse tryst is part of a series called Unblessed Love (不被祝福的愛) that features popular comic characters and other cultural icons in passionate embraces.

The duos include Doraemon, the blue time-traveling robot cat, and Nobita, his schoolboy buddy; Spiderman and his Uncle Ben; Ken Washio and sidekick Joe Asakura from Japanese manga series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman; Batman and Robin; and former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

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