Betel nut brouhaha exposes disagreement
By Laurence Eyton

TAIPEI - Taiwan's "betel-nut beauties" are being told to cover up. And they aren't happy about it.

The girls are a key part of a business worth by some estimates US$1 billion a year. And the way they go about their business is bringing Taiwan into disrepute and possibly corrupting society, some local politicians have started to argue.

It certainly can be a disconcerting sight. Along major highways and on the off and on ramps of the main north-south freeway, the transport backbone that connects Taiwan's industry in the north of the island to its major port on the southern tip, there are a profusion of cheaply constructed glass booths. In them sit scantily clad girls, few of them beyond their early 20s. Their task is to take a betel nut, wrap it with some paste in a leaf and pack half a dozen nuts into a boxes. Drivers, especially truck drivers - many of whom are addicted to the mild stimulation the nut provides - will stop to buy the nuts. When they do the girls totter out of their booth on the highest of heels in the shortest of micro-minis and a bikini top to conduct the transaction.

Or at least they used to. Because such is the competition to sell the nuts among what is estimated to be 100,000 vending outlets around the island that some of the girls have all but dispensed with clothes altogether.

First it was flesh-colored see-through tops with no bras. Then the microskirts went see-through too. Then briefs started to be replaced by thongs, and now among the keener vendors even the thongs have gone. Seeing a for-all-intents-naked 17-year-old standing by the roadside holding out boxes of betel nut can rattle the most urbane observer, especially when Taiwan still tries to present itself to the rest of the world as a relatively conservative Confucian society. And this, it seems, has prompted an attempt to make the betel-nut girls cover up, which in its turn has prompted a storm of protest over such issues as the environment, the island's civil liberties, women's rights and the patriarchal legacy of Confucianism.

The move to make the betel-nut sellers wear less-revealing apparel started in Taoyuan county. Taoyuan is in the north of the island and the real excesses of betel-nut couture, or rather lack of it, are far more prevalent in the south, so it might seem a strange place for a cleanup campaign to start. It is no accident, however, that Taoyuan also happens to be the site of the island's main airport.

As a result, Liao Cheng-ching, the deputy head of the Taoyuan county government, feels embarrassed. Every time he goes to the airport to pick up guests from overseas, taking them from the airport to their final destination seems to involve running a gauntlet on the county's highways of young girls wearing startlingly revealing clothes. Liao has been embarrassed enough, he says, and betel-nut-beauty dishabille, which he called "a disgrace to Taiwan", has to be reined in. "It's embarrassing that there are so many betel-nut stands along the roads carrying foreign visitors from CKS [Chiang Kai Shek] Airport in Taoyuan county to Taipei city," he told a local paper late last month.

Hence the issuance in mid-September of an order for police to start ticketing betel-nut sellers, starting next Tuesday, for the exposure of breasts, buttocks or bellies, which was very quickly nicknamed, in imitation of weightier matters, Taoyuan's "Three No's policy."

No sooner was this announced than other counties, particularly neighboring Hsinchu - interestingly the location of the country's main science park, which also receives a lot of foreign visitors - said they were going to take similar measures. Minister of the Interior Yu Cheng-hsien was also quick to support the dress code, if only because some girls were so strikingly un-attired that there was a risk of traffic accidents.

Almost certainly, neither Liao nor those who supported his idea expected the backlash that followed. After all, ever since the betel-nut-beauty phenomenon first surfaced in Taipei in the mid-1990s - from where the current president, Chen Shui-bian, expelled it during his time as mayor, making the capital the only place on the island betel-nut-beauty-free - Taiwan's media, which rival Britain's notorious tabloid press for obsessive prurience, have reveled in stories of the immorality that, they claim, pervades the industry, with its overtones of vice and the sexual exploitation of young women. Of course hypocrisy abounds; newspapers love to run stories about how shocking it is that girls should be exposing their bodies while running big pictures of the bodies so exposed. Nevertheless, the overall tone among Taiwan's commentariat had previously been condemnatory of the betel-nut-beauty phenomenon.

So it was perhaps surprising that the media, especially the newspapers, became the source of the most vociferous attacks on the new policy. Editorialists had little to say about Taoyuan's policy either way, but there was commentary in plenty, a surprising amount of which condemned Taoyuan's Three No's.

The critics have fallen into at least three camps, with agendas that have found themselves in conflict. One sees the betel-nut-beauty phenomenon as a symptom of the wider disease that constitutes the betel-nut industry, which it wants to see banned. Another deplores the exploitation of young women, which it blames on a patriarchal society that devalues women, and believes that the girls need to be rescued from their lives, not just told to wear more. Meanwhile a third swath of opinion has focused on civil-liberty issues, asking by what right government at any level thinks it can decide what people can and cannot wear. To an observer, all the arguments are interesting for what they reveal about contemporary Taiwan.

First there is the abolitionist lobby. To them the question of what vendors wear is a diversion from the real issue, which is betel and the damage that it does. This is, in part, associated with the general collapse of Taiwan's once heavily protected agricultural sector.

Small rural communities in the mountainous areas that cover two-thirds of Taiwan island used to live by growing cold-weather fruit, apples, pears and the like, or vegetables. As the island has opened up to cheap imports, the favored cash crop has shifted to betel nut. The problem is that betel-nut trees are an ecological disaster for Taiwan's mountainous areas. Their shallow root systems make surface soil unstable, leading to potentially devastating land slips during the summer typhoon season. In both 1996 and 2001 such was the damage left in typhoons' wake that the government vowed to uproot the betel industry. On both occasions little was done, simply because many mountain communities are totally financially dependent on betel cultivation. Alternative crop schemes have been tried and have as often failed - they simply don't generate the same amount of income.

And the damage is not just ecological; betel is a health hazard. Taiwan's oral-cancer rates are four times those of Japan, and 80 percent of sufferers are or have been betel-nut chewers. Yet there is surprisingly little information about this. Local governments such as Taipei city's are more concerned with the unsightly red splashes on sidewalks from the spat-out remains of the chewed nut - you do not actually swallow the nut, only the juice - than they are about betel chewing's health aspects.

There is also the question of betel turning Taiwanese into a nation of scofflaws. Most betel is grown illegally, on theoretically protected slopeland, and it is overwhelmingly sold illegally - none of those booths in which the beauties sit have permits for their erection. Legally they are simple obstructions. Yet nobody has been prosecuted for growing betel nut and vendors are seldom fined for their booths.

These critics of the entire betel-nut industry find a measure of common ground with some in the women's-rights movement in that they see the position of betel-nut beauties as a form of sexual exploitation that may lead to other forms of vice, such as prostitution.

One prominent women's-rights organization, the Garden of Hope Foundation, which in the mid-1990s spearheaded a successful movement to criminalize patronizing teenage prostitutes, sees the betel-nut girls as victims of a society only too willing to market young female sexuality.

"Taiwan has a collective case of 'infatuation' with the vivaciousness and alluring bodies of young women," said Chi Hui-jung, the Garden of Hope's chief executive officer. "Adult society, however, feels helpless in the face of the steadily growing number of degrading jobs for young women - pole dancers, teahouse girls, hostess-bar princesses, escort girls, betel-nut beauties, liquor girls and phone-sex operators. So society simply condemns women for succumbing to temptation and 'willingly becoming degenerate'."

Chi thinks such women are being exploited, that they are catering to patriarchal notions of beauty, pandering to male fantasies and turning themselves into mere products.

What is needed, says Chi, is a government strategy to protect the rights of young girls, raise their level of values and strengthen their ability to resist exploitation.

If one talks to any of the girls themselves, however, one soon finds that Chi's idea of exploitation differs from that of the average betel-nut beauty. Where Chi thinks that it's exploitative to expose your body as part of your job, many of the girls seem to think that it is an acceptable price to pay for earning as much as they do. Many of them are school dropouts with no qualifications who otherwise would be doing low-grade factory work for a paltry NT$20,000 (about US$570) a month. Vending betel nut puts twice as much money in their pockets. The girls also claim that nobody actually forces them to dress the way they do, though they admit that competition from other stands raises the ante.

One girl this writer talked to, who called herself Ah-mei, said: "I'm certainly not going to show everything. If I did I could earn more, but I might get trouble as well. But I don't see why its OK for a singer or a model to make money showing her body but it's not right to do it selling betel nut."

And that is a good point. Taiwan is awash in the vicarious sexual sell. Girls in eye-poppingly brief attire are used to sell everything from computers to yogurt. Given that few exhibition venues tolerate outright nudity, body paint has become the cover-up of choice. This writer recently saw a product launch - for a new iced dessert on a stick - featuring girls covered only in body paint. Nipples are no longer taboo in mainstream advertising as long as they aren't flesh-colored.

Then there is the entertainment industry, which thrives on young women wearing next to nothing. Another girl I questioned said: "It's OK for [Hong Kong singer] Karen Mok to make millions of dollars stripping down to her underwear on stage, but not for me to make what I make by wearing a miniskirt; is that right?"

The girls also deny that betel-nut selling is the beginning of a slippery slope. Ah-mei again: "If I wanted to be a hooker I could sit in a comfortable club and chat to men; I wouldn't be here sitting in this booth like an oven, choking on the pollution."

The girls' views closely resemble those of a third kind of commentator, the civil libertarian who thinks that it is none of the government's business what the girls should or should not wear. Whereas Chi claims that the girls are being exploited by a society dominated by patriarchal fetishism of the young female body, the civil libertarians argue that in fact the girls are going from a disadvantageous position - young, poorly educated, often with a dysfunctional family - to economic independence and the personal autonomy that goes with it.

Josephine Ho, coordinator of the Center for the Study of Sexuality at Taiwan's National Central University, wrote in the Liberty Times newspaper of the Three No's: "It is not only the right to dress freely, not only the room for women to affirm the attractiveness of their own bodies that is being frustrated here. What is really suffering is the chance for women to actively strive for economic gain and the opportunity for young women to make an honest and hard-earned living."

Ho sees nothing wrong in girls showing as much as they like and finds the idea that an administrative body has the right to tell people how to dress "ridiculous".

The betel-nut beauties themselves have not been quiet about the Three No's, organizing a demonstration in front of the Taoyuan county government headquarters with slogans such as "my body, my job, my own business". This had the immediate result of turning the three no's into two no's, getting the prohibition on bare bellies lifted, as even the county government realized it could not forbid betel-nut vendors to wear attire that was perfectly legal among ordinary citizens on the street. But there is also more legal confusion. Exposing breasts in public is an offense against morals in the criminal code, but the law says nothing about buttocks.

What will be implemented next week, and how, is almost anyone's guess. The girls' reaction is, however, utterly predictable: the more daringly exposing of them will simply do what they do now when a police patrol car hoves into site or business is slack - wrap a sarong around themselves.

At least most of them will. One Taoyuan betel-nut beauty was fined last week. When she asked why, she was told it was because the see-through skirt she wore showed her pubic hair. Determined not to let this happen again, she went home, shaved the offending hair off and went back to work in the same skirt. She was outraged and protested vehemently when she was fined for indecency a second time.

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Oct 9, 2002


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