Mon, Mar 11, 2002 - Page 2 News List

Betel-nut beauties a part of local culture

SOCIETY The scantily-clad young women who sell the popular stimulant at roadside stalls can't be legislated away, scholars and social critics say

By Tsai Ting-i  /  STAFF REPORTER

A `betel-nut beauty' scurries to deliver a box of betel nuts to a customer.

TAIPEI TIMES FILE PHOTO

Despite calls by a Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) legislator to crack down on "betel-nut beauties," the scantily-clad young women who sell the popular stimulant at roadside stalls are a part of Taiwan's culture and can't be easily outlawed, scholars and social critics say.

Betel-nut beauties are unique to Taiwan. Legislators, scholars, social workers and government officials say that because the women are a part of Taiwan's contemporary grassroots culture, cracking down on them isn't right.

Betel-nut beauties are found in a transparent kiosks along roads nationwide. They usually wear sexy clothing in order to catch the attention of drivers.

In some cases, because of severe competition, betel-nut beauties in country areas have been known to wear nothing but a see-through dress.

"There's no way to get rid of the betel nut business in Taiwan," Minister of the Interior Yu Cheng-hsien (余政憲) said in an interview with the Taipei Times.

"Betel nuts have been a part of people's life in Taiwan. How can we only crack down on betel-nut girls, as traders hiring them are responsible?" Yu said.

Although betel-nut merchants have operated in Taiwan for decades, there are no official statistics on the industry. Nor does the government know how many betel-nut beauties there are in Taiwan.

According to industry estimates, there are roughly 100,000 kiosks selling betel nuts across the nation.

To attract more customers, vendors started hiring scantily-clad young women in 1996. When a few cases of prostitution associated with betel-nut vending became known, critics said the women were damaging the nation's moral climate and that government authorities had the responsibility to do something.

Wang Ping (王蘋), secretary-general of the Gender Sexuality Rights Association, said betel-nut girls are a unique social phenomena in Taiwan and nobody has the right to say they are indecent.

"When people accuse betel-nut girls of damaging the nation's moral climate, they should provide evidence proving what morals have been damaged and who has been bothered in society," Wang said.

Annoyed with negative media coverage, many of the women have refused to give interviews.

One woman, who spoke anonymously, said she would just get another job, such as working at a gas station, if the authorities want to crack down. "It's not a big deal to lose this job. I can just work for a gas station," she said.

Whether to hire young women to staff kiosks is a controversial issue among betel-nut vendors.

The owner of the popular brand A-Chiou, who only gave his surname, Fu, said, "hiring betel-nut girls to sell betel nuts is just a poor measure to stimulate business."

The hiring of young women has generated security concerns. To prevent the women from being harassed, some stall-owners have installed video cameras.

"I have no choice but to hire betel-nut girls, since all of my competitors are doing so," said one owner.

Chen Dong-sheng (陳東昇), a sociology professor at National Taiwan University, said the existence of betel-nut girls reflects how society views young women's bodies as commodities.

"Under tight competition, betel-nut vendors are just incorporating women's bodies into betel-nut vending. The measure obviously is meant to attract male betel-nut buyers," Chen said.

"This is no different from other industries commercializing wo-men's bodies," Chen said. "And if we want to crack down on betel-nut girls, other commercial products that use women's bodies [to make sales] should be treated in the same way."

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