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The ‘betel-nut beauties’ of Taiwan

Tuesday, 30 January 2007 - 9:53pm IST
Drive along highways in Taiwan, you’ll come across young women, ready to give drivers of passing vehicles something to chew on...

A Taiwanese phenomenon stretches the meaning of having ‘one for the road’


TAIPEI: Drive along the highways in Taiwan, and at any of the exits near major cities and towns, you’ll come across groups of pretty young women in skimpy attire, standing in front of neon-lit shops named ‘Hot China Girls’ or ‘Erotic Bitches’ and ready to give drivers of passing vehicles something to chew on…


It’s not what you think; what they’re selling is betel-nuts, the mildly addictive — but entirely legal — stimulant preferred by millions of Taiwanese people, particularly truck drivers who need to keep awake at the wheel at nights.


The women who sell them are called binlang xishi, or “betel-nut beauties”, and they represent a uniquely Taiwanese sub-culture that’s increasingly coming under the scanner of the “moral police”, health professionals and women’s rights groups.


Chewing betel-nuts is something of a national pastime in Taiwan: an estimated 20 per cent of Taiwan’s 23 million population is partial to it; all this incessant chewing supports some 70,000 families that subsist on growing the crop that is, even today, Taiwan’s second largest agricultural produce (rice being the first).


The consumption value of the crop, by some estimates, is upwards of NT$100 billion ($3 billion) a year.


The betel-nut beauties are just the last link in the consumer cycle: it’s all part of a sales technique thought up by enterprising betel-nut traders to drum up business by “sexing up” the point of purchase.


The girls work from neon-lit glass booths along the highways, often sitting on high chairs and flashing a fair bit of leg (among other body parts). Whenever a driver stops by, they come out in their seductive attire and complete the transaction. Some of them linger on and flirt with the buyers, and may be rewarded with a tip.


Betel-nut traders insist it’s all clean and above the board, but law enforcers aren’t so sure. Just last week, police said they had stepped up inspection of betel-nut stalls following reports that the girls were providing ‘drive-through’ sex services to customers.


There have been reports that when a car pulls up and the driver lowers the window, some girls squeeze their upper body through the window while handing over the betel nuts — and allow the drive to fondle them. Others even hop in to perform oral sex, the reports said.


From time to time, authorities issue orders requiring the betel-nut sellers to cover up their “breasts, buttocks, and bellies”, but these are frequently ignored. Police officials also complain that the beauties are a traffic hazard because in some cases, accidents happen because the drivers are distracted at these hotspots.


(In that aspect, the xishi are only being true to their name; Xi Shi was a woman of infinite beauty in ancient China, and legend has it that when she came to the riverside, the fish in the river forgot how to swim and sank, and distracted condors stopped flapping their wings and plunged to their deaths!)


On another front, Taiwan’s health professionals too are concerned about the effects of “sexing up” the sales of betel-nut, which is known to be cancer-causing.


Says Dr Jin-Heng Li, specialist general at Taiwan’s Department of Health: “Over 90% of cancer cases in Taiwan are linked to betel-nut chewing. There are incidences of even 20-year-olds with oral cancer; the government runs an education campaign in schools to tell students about the risks of cancer from the betel-nut habit.”


Women’s groups are also concerned that the betel-nut sellers, some of whom are minors and who typically come from low-income families, are susceptible to sexual exploitation. “We intervene whenever we get reports of minors being sexually harassed,” says Li-Feng Lee, secretary general of Ecpat Taiwan, a non-government agency.


Yet, it’s a losing a battle. In an environment where many manufacturing jobs have moved from Taiwan to mainland China in recent years, unskilled women from smaller towns are taking to selling betel-nut, with all the attendant risks involved. It’s enough to give policymakers something to chew on…




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