Saturday, November 13, 2010

Betel nut and the young ladies who sell it

A lot of people are suspicious of the Want China Times, a new Taiwan-based English-language online newspaper, because its owners make no secret of their pro-Beijing sympathies. However, it's political reporting is no more biased than that in other Taiwan newspapers, and they do run some interesting features - such as one a few days back about betel-nut beauties, the skimpily-dressed young women who sell betel nut (and cigarettes, mineral water and soft drinks - but not sex, as some tourists assume) from roadside kiosks. Even if there's no girl inside, these stands are hard to miss. Like the one pictured here, they're always brightly lit and often garishly decorated.

The article mentions one strip of highway in Yilan County as being especially famous for betel-nut beauties, but they're not difficult to find in the western and southern lowlands. If you're travelling along any major road, keep your eyes open.

Tobie Openshaw, a South African photographer living in Taipei, has made a name for himself with his portraits of these ladies; the two photos here are his. This video segment is an especially good introduction to betel nut girls.

According to one source, Taiwan is the world's second-largest producer of betel nut (檳榔), production having increased from 3,718 tonnes in 1961 to 165,076 tonnes in 2001. Only India grows more. In addition to the land given over to betel nut palms, quite many farmers earn a living growing piper betle leaves.

The effects of betel nut on the chewer's long-term health have been thoroughly researched. More information and links can be found here.

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