HSINCHU, Taiwan — A magazine here is catching flak for touting scantily clad betel nut vendors as a tourist attraction.

The minor flap has renewed debate over a unique but controversial part of Taiwan's pop culture.

Betel nut, a mild stimulant, is enjoyed across Asia. But only in Taiwan is the nut sold by fetching young women in outrageous outfits, perched in neon-lit, see-through roadside stands.

Popularized in the 1990s, the so-called "betel nut beauty" phenomenon has long had a parade of critics, including feminists (the trade degrades women), health officials (betel nut causes oral cancer), embarrassed local officials (betel nut culture is low-class and vulgar) and environmentalists (the cash crop is over-planted and causes soil erosion).

But the beauties don't seem to be going anywhere. Ditto betel-nut chewing, a dug-in part of Taiwan male, working-class culture that has so far resisted reformers' best efforts to stamp it out. Truckers, taxi-drivers and construction workers are especially fond of the chew.

Outside Hsinchu's high-speed rail station, a taxi driver who gave only his family name, Hsu, said foreigners often ask him to take them to see the betel nut girls. (That might have something to do with the sidebar on "betel nut beauties" in the Hsinchu section of the Lonely Planet guidebook to Taiwan.)

Hsu laughed at the mention of the controversy, and drove us in search of the betel nut stands. "In Taiwan, if you want to sell betel nut, you have to take off some clothes," he said. "If you wear too much, you won't make any money."

Asked if he would mind if one of his own relatives worked as a betel nut beauty, Hsu considered for a moment and said, "I wouldn't say no, as long as they didn't wear too little. If their clothes were too revealing they'd be criticized."

They might also be fined by the police for indecency, in extreme cases, demanding a keen sense of exposure judgment from the girls.

"That stand's new, and the girls wear too many clothes," Hsu said dismissively, as we drove by one betel nut joint. "They're not going to make any money."

Driving past a strip of stands on Guangfu Road, he complained, "They're all wearing too much — you can't see anything. You really need to come back in the summertime."

One betel nut girl, staring out from bright blue, iris-enlarging contact lenses and unwieldy fake eyelashes, simply shrugged when asked about the controversy. "It's Taiwan culture," she said, before hurrying out of her stall to the sidewalk to sell a customer his betel fix.

Down the road, a scowling beauty, more advanced in years, prepared a batch of nuts. She slathered lime paste on a leaf, clipped the end off a betel nut, expertly wrapped the leaf around it and chucked it on a pile. They're sold in zip-lock bags, or in a box of 15 for about $1.75, with white- and red-paste varieties; fans chew the nuts like gum and spit out the juice.

A young woman who gave only her "nom de betel," (Steamed Bun) was more chipper and talkative. She sported white pumps, blue lingerie, a flimsy see-through negligee and a hooded winter coat. But not because of the chill. "A cop just came by and told us to cover up
more," she explained.

As her fellow beauty slurped up a bowl of noodles, Steamed Bun said her parents originally opposed her line of work, but now they'd gotten used to it. She pulls in $1,500 to $1,900 in a good month, or about twice as much as a typical Taiwan college graduate's starting salary.

Steamed Bun said busloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists come by their stand often to take pictures and sample the betel. "It's okay, I don't mind," she said, when asked if she objected to being touted as a tourist draw.

But she did complain about the occupational hazards. "There are a lot of perverts. They'll try to touch your breasts, or stroke you. Usually we take care of it ourselves. I've slapped customers before."

If that fails, video cameras monitor the stands and sidewalks outside 24/7. Anyone who messes too much with the girls risks a beat-down from a security tough in the backroom or nearby.

The situation's made more ambiguous because some girls sell sexual favors on the side, said Steamed Bun. "Here we just sell betel nut, that's it," she said. "But other girls might do more. It's up to them."

In typical Taiwanese fashion, the latest flap drew a mix of outrage, and pointers on where the "spiciest" betel nut beauties can be found.

The trouble started when "T-Life" magazine, published by the Taiwan High-Speed Rail Corporation and distributed free to riders, listed betel nut beauties as one of the five top attractions in the Hsinchu area.

That drew criticism from some residents of the region, which is known for its gusty weather. Said one indignant local to Apple Daily, "We're the Windy City, not the Immoral City," using a play on words in Chinese.

Soon the Hsinchu mayor and Hsinchu county commissioner had piled on, calling for a correction and apology. Partly, they didn't like being singled out. "Every city and county in Taiwan has betel nut beauties," said a Hsinchu city spokesman by phone. "In the south, there are even more, and they wear even less."

The high-speed rail corporation has so far declined to apologize. But it has "explained" the situation, according to a spokesperson at its Hsinchu station. The magazine is outsourced, the advice on betel nut girls was only "the author's personal point of view," and in the future
the company will "closely review" its articles, the spokesperson said.

"Personally, I think it's inappropriate," to tout betel nut beauties, the spokesperson said. "We should respect different cultures and different points of view, but I wouldn't encourage visitors to see betel nut girls."

Meanwhile, a Hsinchu police official helpfully told the China Post that while the magazine had touted the beauties on Zhonghua Road, the ones on Gongdao Fifth Road and sections one and two of Jingguo Road wore far more revealing outfits.

On the way back to the high-speed rail station, another cab driver, Liu Hsiu-hua, said she respected the beauties' business, but that it was inappropriate to tout them to tourists. "There are so many other things to see around Hsinchu," she said.

And besides, Hsinchu's betel nut girls were nothing special, she said.

"The most outrageous girls? Probably the ones in Longtan," she said, referring to a nearby township that's also the headquarters of Taiwan's army.

(Editor's Note: See more of Tobie Openshaw's photos of betel nut beauties and background on the topic).

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