Betel nut girls in the news

There is an article in today's Taipei Times by Jules Quartly about Tobie Openshaw's Betelnut Beauty photo exhibition. It is well worth a read and makes a number of interesting points.

In the article Kloie Picot, a Canadian photojournalist comments on the exhibition. 

They are not pornographic because they do not “cross the line,” according to Kloie Picot, a Canadian photojournalist and videographer. “These girls offer the illusion of sex.”

There was one picture, however, which she objected to. It was of a young woman dressed in a practically non-existent bikini, taking a picture of herself with a mobile phone. “She's crossed the line, she's feeding herself to the guys and making it so the other girls have to keep up [by wearing less],” Picot said.

You can see the photograph she is referring to at flickr. I must say I disagree with Picot's opinion about the photograph. The article includes a number of of other interesting comments and thoughts from photographer Tobie Openshaw and some betel nut girls.  

photos from Liberty Times 2007-02-28

 photos from the Liberty Times (自由時報) 28 February 2008 

An article in the Liberty Times (自由時報) on the topic of betel nut beauties yesterday provides quite a contrast. The article carries the headline 西施黑森林 網路爆熱潮, meaning "beauty's black forest unleashes internet tidal wave". Black forest is a euphemism, you can guess what it means if you look at the pixelated part of one of the photos accompanying the article (see above).

Liberty Times article about betel nut girls 2007-02-28A brief summary of the article is as follows. I won't attempt a full translation because there are a few colloquial or idiomatic phrases that I am not really sure about. You can view the full text by clicking on the thumbnail next to this paragraph.

Someone posted a short video of a betelnut girl in Taoyuan wearing transparent clothing on the internet. This prompted discussion on the internet about how far the betel nut girls would go. [The content of the video is described in detail. The main point being the girl's clothing is very revealing and goes beyond what is normally considered good taste.] There has been much discussion of the article on the internet. People asked where in Taoyuan it was. A local said it was probably not in Nankan, Taoyuan County (桃園縣的南崁).

I really can't figure out the point of the article. I doesn't provide any real analysis or opinion. It just seems like a filler to accompany a picture which is bound to grab people's attention. The only context is an article above it entitled 情色簡訊 包你不孤單 (sexy message makes you feel not lonely). The article is about the use of text messages to attract customers to the sex industry.

Articles like this simply reinforce stereotypes that betel nut girls are the same as sex workers or are an excuse to publish sexy pictures to sell more newspapers. Betel nut girls are certainly an interesting topic that attracts many people's attention, but it is a pity so few look beyond the clothes (or lack of) that the betel nut girls are wearing.

It is worthwhile considering that other job opportunities available to many of these women would have much lower pay and worse conditions. In the Taipei Times article photographer Tobie Openshaw notes that singers like Jolin Tsai (蔡依林) are idolised for wearing revealing outfits. However, betel nut girls attract scorn for doing the same thing. Unlike the Liberty Times article, the Taipei Times informs the reader about a lot more than the betel nut girls' underwear. 

There are even more important issues related to the product the girls are selling. Betel nuts are a cause of high rates of oral cancer in Taiwan. The clearing of land for betel nut plantations contributes to landslides and flooding and leads to a loss of biodiversity. Betel nuts are still untaxed and unregulated by the Taiwanese government. 

If the people of Taiwan want to get outraged about something then they should start thinking about some of these issues instead of focusing on what betel nut girls are wearing. But I guess that doesn't sell newspapers.

12 thoughts on “Betel nut girls in the news

  1. Well, not all betel nut girls are the same, Tobie, sir!

    To wit: this recent news story here in Taiwan:

    Crackdown on drive-through sex with betel nut beauties

    2007/1/24
    TAIPEI

    Police have stepped up inspection of road-side betel nut stalls as
    some betel nut sales girls are providing “drive-through” sex services to customers, television reported on Monday.

    Police have increased patrols on Highway 19 in Tainan County,
    southern Taiwan, after some betel nut sellers launched “drive through”
    services to passing car drivers, several cable TV channels reported.

    According to the reports, when a car pulls up and the driver lowers
    the window, a betel nut girl would run up, push her upper body through
    the window, hand over a packet of betel nuts while allowing the car
    driver to fondle her breasts.

    For a higher fee, the betel nut girl, nicknamed betel nut beauty,
    would jump into the front seat and perform oral sex on the driver.

    “We have stepped up patrols on No 19 highway to crack down on
    prostitution. We now demand to check the ID card of every betel nut
    seller to make sure it is a proper business, not a front for selling
    sex,” a policeman said on ETTV.

    But while most betel nut stalls sell betel nuts, some scantily-dressed
    betel nut girls sit on high chairs in glass booths to lure customers and lure customers with other services.

    Is this true? Ask any Taiwanese man. He’ll tell you!

  2. Yeah, I was a little surprised by Openshaw’s claim that betel nut girls aren’t prostitutes. Didn’t anyone ever mention that you can feel two breasts for $100 at most of them? I think part of it is because he missed the go-go days of the ’90s when the girls were young and naked, all gone after the crackdowns and the rise of wang3 jiao1.

    I totally agree with your comments and Openshaw’s observations about pay. Betel nut girl pays relatively well, certainly better than schlepping drinks in a tea shop. let’s not forget that preparing betel nuts for sale involves lots of dull repetitive fine motor work that young women traditionally do anyway, so there is no question that the industry would employ lots of young femmes even if they weren’t half naked — and the progression to half naked would become almost inevitable, given that in every culture sex sells. Betel nut girls are not a luxury, they’re an inevitability.

    Michael

  3. The point that I try to make in my interview and with my exhibition, is that the general impression that people have about betelnut girls (they\’re all prostitutes and they\’ll all let you cop a feel for x amount) is not the case, and very specifically not the case in the areas in which I operate. There are big regional differences in how the girls dress and act, that is true. Copping a feel does happen, I know (although interestingly enough, always to a friend\’s cousin\’s uncle). But while it does happen, I hope to show that you cannot tar every betelnut girl with the same brush. They get little enough respect as it is without the 90\’s stereotypes being perpetuated. I would invite anyone who thinks that \”betelnut girls are prostitutes\” and that \”most of them\” will let you feel whatever it is you get off on feeling, to come to Taoyuan and try. You are most likely to feel th ewrong end of the lao-ban\’s baseball bat. Secondly, I invite you to visit my flickr site at http://www.flickr.com/photos/tobie_openshaw , look into the eyes of girls like Ada, Amy and Hsiao Chin, and tell me to my face that these girls are all prostitutes. (And then next you might want to tell me how a girl, alone in a transparent glass booth, is going to service a client while still selling betelnut?) I\’ve been talking to these girls for 7 years, I think I have a pretty good handle on where they\’re at. The go-go days are over, is exactly my point. And you know, ultimately all I really want to say is, don\’t generalize, don\’t assume, and how about just showing a little respect?
    Tobie Openshaw

  4. No problem, Michael. That button gets pressed a lot, (and I know that you know … ) so it was good to get an opportunity to respond 🙂
    Cheers
    Tobie

  5. case you missed it, APPLE DAILY had a photo on Friday page 9 or so, of betel nut girl with open blouse exposing tits to driver in a car with secret camera shot. You guys who think betel nut bueaties are just salesgirl ought to get your heads examined. these girls are doing it. you don’t know because you are 4inners. wake up and smell the red juice!

  6. ari, I don’t think anyone denies these things happen. It is just that the media tends to focus on these things and distort people’s perceptions of who betel nut girls are and what they do. That is the key point I am trying to get across in what I wrote above. Unfortunately pictures of naked women sell more newspapers than serious analysis of the issues.

  7. I wanted to comment about the article above, but I didn’t get past the images…and the words “beauty’s black forest…” and the, um… yeah. Man, I really could go for some leaf-wrapped betel nut right now…

    …I gotta run.

    Maybe I Should put my Betel Nut Girl story on my blog…

    Man, I miss Taiwan already….

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