Monday, January 15, 2007

Betel nut beauties

1 comment:

lynchtp said...

Betel nut beauties, or betel nut girls (檳榔西施, pinyin: bīnláng xīshī), are scantily-clad young women selling betel nut on roadside kiosks in Taiwan. A uniquely Taiwanese phenomenon, they are named after the legendary beauty Xi Shi from the Spring and Autumn Period of ancient China.
Betel nut beauty on the road between Taipei and Hsinchu.
Betel nut beauty on the road between Taipei and Hsinchu.

Taiwanese betel nut kiosks, heavily decorated with bright neon lights, are most common on highways and suburban roads in the western part of the island, such as around Taichung. The main clientele is composed of truck drivers who chew the mildly addictive nuts for the stimulant to help them stay awake on long trips. The high profitability of betel nut production and commerce has led to a multiplication of such kiosks, and as competition for customers' attention has increased, the girls staffing them have been wearing less and less. In 2002, local governments began to ban nudity and excessively revealing clothing in betel nut kiosks, first in Taipei City, then in neighbouring Taoyuan County. As of 2004, although betel nut beauties still exist, they are now more modestly dressed than in previous years.

Betel nut girls are usually from working-class backgrounds. Some are secondary-school dropouts; others may have been forced into the work by their families, in which they are the primary wage-earners. Most have had difficulty finding jobs in such places as chain convenience stores owing to their low levels of education or their youth; or else they (or their relatives) prefer the comparatively higher wages earned from working the kiosks.

Some women's groups have controversially defended the right of working-class betel nut girls to dress provocatively as part of a legitimate effort to improve their economic lot. They point out that sexy images of international supermodels, pop stars, and trade show models are no less provocative but are condoned and even admired by the wider culture. In the view of these groups, policies intended to regulate betel nut girls and their dress smack of hypocrisy and class discrimination.

Others have criticized the media for portraying the girls in a sensational and negative light while largely ignoring the underlying social and economic issues. The Taiwanese anti-sexual exploitation organization Garden of Hope is not optimistic about the autonomy of betel nut girls, whom it regards as child labor exploited by management and sometimes by family members. In its view, working as a betel nut beauty is the first step down a slippery slope leading to substance abuse and prostitution.