專訪何春蕤:

(這是美國San Diego的Mercury News對我進行的有關台灣檳榔西施衣著令的採訪,刊登於2002年11月25日)

CRACKDOWN ON TAIWAN STREETS      BETEL-NUT SALESWOMEN MUST COVER UP

Published: Monday, November 25, 2002

Source: BY JOHN BOUDREAU, Mercury News

They are called ”betel nut beauties.” All across this island, scantily clad young women in brightly lit plexiglass booths along busy streets sell the tobacco-like stimulant to passersby.  But in the future many of these women will have to dress more modestly, thanks to the ”three-no’s” law just passed in one northern county — no exposure of breasts, bellies or buttocks.

The crackdown — or in this case, cover-up — is the Taiwanese government’s latest salvo against a well-established, multibillion-dollar betel-nut industry that is causing deep embarrassment to a country with a sophisticated economy and vibrant tech sector. More than 300,000 Taiwanese sell 15 million betel nuts a year, but the growing trade has led to high rates of oral cancer, environmental damage from the betel-nut trees and the image problem posed by the saleswomen.

Taiwan has become ”world famous” for its betel-nut saleswomen, Taoyuan Deputy Magistrate Liao Cheng-Ching said in an e-mail. ”We are not really proud of that,” he added.  The betel-nut saleswomen are everywhere in Taiwan, especially near freeway on-ramps. They dart out of their booths to sell betel nut, cigarettes and drinks to mostly men, who drive up in cars, in trucks and on motorbikes. They are also selling what looks like, but usually is not, sex: They wear bikini tops, skimpy shorts and sometimes what appears to be lingerie.  Under the new law in Taoyuan county, which went into effect in mid-October, those who bare too much skin face a fine of up to $171.

Authorities say the new law will make the streets safer from accidents caused by distracted male drivers. They worry that in some cases the betel-nut selling could lead to prostitution, and to robberies and sexual attacks against the workers.

”The less these women wear, the more business they have,” Liao said of betel-nut sales. The women, he added, are wearing ”less and less — even nothing.”

Indeed, the more restrictive policy is hurting business.  ”It’s caused a great slump,” said one betel-nut saleswoman in the city of Chungli, not far from Taipei. On a recent afternoon she appeared in violation of the law: Her stomach was exposed. Her boss, dressed in slacks and a tie, prevented his employee from saying more. He said he did not want to provoke local authorities to closely watch his operation.

At another betel-nut stand, Hsiao-Ru, 23, said that sales were down since she stopped wearing a tank top and shorts.  Instead, she was wearing a short dress.  She disagreed that her outfit put her in danger. At night, her stand is well-lit. She and other betel-nut sellers keep an eye out for each other.

”This is just my uniform at work,” Hsiao said.

Betel nut, dubbed ”Taiwanese chewing gum,” is a stimulant popular for centuries in Asia and other parts of the world. It is grown on areca trees, also known as betel-nut palm trees.  It contains a red dye that creates red spit.  Government officials estimate that more than 3 million Taiwanese a year — about 13 percent of the population — chew betel nuts.  Users say betel nuts give them a sense of ”well-being,” something akin to a caffeine rush.

But the acorn-shaped seed contains arecoline, which health officials say can lead to mouth, throat and stomach cancer.  As the popularity of betel-nut chewing grew the last decade, so did the incidence of mouth cancer, and Taiwanese authorities have launched a campaign to educate the public about the health hazards of the stimulant.  Environmentalists say over-planting of betel-nut trees on mountain slopes also has triggered extensive mudslides.

Josephine Ho, a professor who has studied the betel-nut trade, maintains the new regulation singles out the working class,

the main market for the stimulant. ”The other classes have learned to drink coffee,” said Ho, from the National Central University in Chungli.  For betel-nut workers, who will never have elite jobs because they lack college educations, it’s relatively well-paid work, Ho said.  It does not come with the hazards associated with some factory jobs. And the women’s encounters with men are usually quick and harmless, she said.  It’s much less humiliating than working in bars, where women are expected to drink alcohol and become friendly with male customers, she added.

Betel-nut worker Hsiao said she can make more selling betel nuts, about $714 a month, than working in a factory, which would pay $530 to $700 a month.  ”If you treat the job professionally,” she said of selling betel nuts, ”it’s no different from any job.”  The high-school graduate said she was a good student, but her parents could not afford to send her to college to pursue her dream to be a flight attendant.

For men working long hours as truck drivers, a visit to a betel-nut stand is a chance for a brief flirtation with an attractive young woman who does not look down on him because he is working-class, Ho said.  Ho understands the new regulation is ”an effort to upgrade our cultural image,” for an island whose economy is now ranked 14th in the world.  But the government, she added, thinks ”we should all look like Americans.”

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