Monday, August 10, 2009

Betelnut Beauties

A Cultural Shell Shock

The beauty of the betel nut... all in its presentation

I had never heard of "Betelnut girls" until I recently saw Kang-sheng Lee's arty sexploitation film Help Me Eros (Bang bang wo ai shen, Taiwan, 2007), but apparently this guy bignosetw (no, it's not me, though those are my initials and, yes, I do have a rather pronounced probiscus!), aka South African documentary filmmaker Tobie Openshaw, knows all about 'em and has a fantastic Flickr set called "Betelnut Beauties." These bust-a-nut pretty young women reminds me of a cross between Japanese cosplay fans and pole-dancing strippers.

Betelnut Beauties make Mr. Peanut seem antiquated

Here's what bignosetw has to say:
Betelnut girls (Binlang Xi Shi) are a unique part of Taiwan culture. They sit in brightly-decorated glass booths wearing skimpy outfits, and sell cigarettes, drinks and betelnut to passing drivers. It’s a controversial trade but not actually illegal. The question of whether the girls are exploited is open to debate – certainly their own perception is mostly that they are doing a job like any other, and the less they choose to wear, the more they sell. For more info, see and follow the links to the video and pictures.

Mr. Bignose, Tobie Openshaw, spent a lot of time researching these girls and even had an art exhibition of his photos in Taipei in 2007.

Tobie Openshaw and Xiao Juan at the opening of his 2007 exhibition

Taiwan's TVBS interviewed him about the exhibit, as well as National Geographic Canada.

Betelnut segment, "National Geographic Canada"

He is also working on Chew On This, a documentary film about the phenomenon.

Teaser trailer for Tobie Openshaw's betelnut documentary

Here's what "Bignose" Tobie O. has to say about his work:
The most common question is how did I manage to get the girls (who are notoriously camera-shy) to agree to me photographing them. Yes, I have to put in the time and patience to win their trust. And still for every 10 there might be one that actually works out in the end and becomes a willing subject. But I have been inspired by girls like Ada who has been generous in sharing with me her experience of the job, Sally who thinks it’s all a lot of fun, and Amy, who is working in the stall by day and studying part-time by night.

Next question: "SURELY these girls are actually prostitutes, right?" Ok …actually no, I have never been offered sex by a betelnut girl. This perception that they are prostitutes is widespread and I guess understandable. But this has not been my experience. Note: I am not saying no betelnut girl ever turned a trick in her spare time, or that a career in selling betelnut doesn’t sometimes spiral down into gangsterism, drugs and prostitution… just that the majority of the girls are quite adamant about their personal boundaries, and quite frankly they are stuck in a brightly-lit glass box for very long hours - hardly a place for paid sex..

But there are big regional differences in how the girls dress and act. There are reports (and I have some video evidence – not shot by me) of guys down south paying an extra fee and the girl either flashing for them or allowing them a quick grope. Up north where I live, the industry has been steadily upgrading its image with well-designed booths, dress codes, and no visible hanky-panky. I always ask the girls about harassment by customers, and the answer is always that yes, of course it happens, but that they have strategies in place to deal with it. They also have security cameras at most all the stalls and the word on the street is that anyone who gives a betelnut girl trouble is likely to end up having to deal with her boss and his buddies.

There is anyway a big turnover with these girls. They stay at one stall for anything between 6 months or a year, and then move on either to another area, or drop out of the business. Like most people on the fringes, they are (with some exceptions, such as Sally, who has been doing it for many years – she’s over 30) almost all hoping to get out of the business and move up to something better...

The most obvious response to the phenomenon is to experience it as pure sex object ... “a (beautiful) object in a (beautiful) box” – the design of the stalls certainly reinforces that and sometimes that’s what I like to capture in my photographs … but more importantly, I also try to capture the real person, to make the object real and show that she might be more than you thought you knew – and she deserves more respect than she’s getting.

ShamWow Vince says "You're gonna love these nuts!"

So what exactly are these stimulating nuts? According to ESL Island, an online guide to teaching English and living in Taiwan:
This legal stimulant is basically Taiwan's version of chewing tobacco, but it's something you really have to try once to understand. Betel Nut (the English name) or 'Binlang' (Bing-long), is a type of fan palm tree which is native to Taiwan, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. In fact, this is such an important cash crop in the region that many farmers subsist on it alone and it is Taiwan's second largest agricultural crop. This coconut-like tree produces a seed that when chewed creates a chewing tobacco-like buzz.

It is usually sold with a slit down the middle, mixed with lime (not the fruit but a caltrate that is scrapped from seashells and the like...) and wrapped in a leaf. The first time you try it may make it your last as it is a very strong, uncomfortably hot feeling (DON'T SWALLOW THE JUICE! Spit it out...). Long-term use can lead to oral cancer and can stain the teeth a nasty dark, reddish-brown color (as well as the fingernails...)

What separates Taiwan from other nearby countries who also grow Betel Nut, is their unique marketing technique: the ubiquitous Betel Nut Girl. The traditional name in Chinese is: binlang xishi.

Dressed at times in little more than a string bikini, young Taiwanese women sit alongside freeways and roadsides in a clear glass booth (often covered by flashing neon lights), hawking small packages of Betel Nut to passerbys & truck drivers. A lot like a roadside strip show, this technique is familiar to all who travel Taiwan and should not be missed on a trip to Taiwan if for nothing more than the originality and sheer spectacle.

Not surprisingly, many politicians have recently decided to crack down on the trend. In addition to deriding users for constantly spitting the reddish liquid on city streets and insisting that the roadside girls (who regularly put up with drunken customers and economic circumstances out of their control) are bad for the country's image, they and other 'reformers' have undertaken a variety of tactics to deal with the explosion of Betel Nut Girls island-wide. However, after harrassing and arresting girls for indecent exposure or even prostitution, the lawmakers have had their hands tied by the powerful farm lobby of betel nut growers (& chewers...) who have thus far made sure that no lawmaker outlaw the practice entirely.

Great googly moogly - someone's even come out with a Betelnut Beauties doll set (for boys, I take it, not girls!):

See also:
Betel nut beauty (Wikipedia)
Tobie Openshaw: Betel Nut Girls (Verbal Hmmm)
Betelnut Beauties in Taiwan (Damn Cool Pics)

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