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Betel Nut Beauties

First impressions
When I arrived in Taiwan 12 years ago, I drove past the girls in the brightly-lit glass cages by the road, amazed that prostitution was practiced so openly! When I asked about it, I got one of two responses: “No, they only sell betel nut and cigarettes and drinks, nothing else”, OR “Oh, those are bad girls. Keep away from them, they cause accidents and give Taiwan a bad name.”
Smelling a controversy and a unique subject to dig into, I investigated further. It took some courage to stop at a stall and buy a can of Mr Brown coffee, unsure whether I would be run off by the gangster boss or kidnapped and made to pay for sexual services! But I did and what I found was very different from my expectations.

As a documentary filmmaker, I’ve always been interested in people who live on the fringes, and this unique subject had received very little serious attention. I became fascinated by the layers of misconception and entrenched prejudice faced by the girls, and I wanted to tell their story. Thus began an eight-years-and-counting quest; a documentary film that never found funding; a photo exhibition that attracted a ton of media attention, and a web gallery with over 1.8 million views.

Access
Getting betel nut beauties to agree to be photographed or interviewed proved to be difficult. They are notoriously camera-shy, and will usually refuse if a man just shows up trying to take pictures of them. At the first contact I always have a Chinese speaking female assistant with me to explain what I do. Everyone has a story to tell, and if they know you’re sincere, they will share theirs. If she says no, I just move on. If she says yes, I will usually build a relationship over time – go back, take more photos, give her some photos from previous occasions, and get to hear her life story.

The Business
The industry has cleaned up its act in many respects. Stalls are properly licensed; the gangster-owner element seems to be declining, and the girls are not underage. In places like Taoyuan County, the enforced dress code has done its job. During the economic downturn, I did notice some stalls closing, but I see them opening up again – there’s renovation going on so it seems business is still perking along.
I have never met a betel nut beauty who claimed that she was coerced into the job. Many do want to get out when the pretty clothes get old and the harassment from customers becomes unbearable. Finding a new job is not easy, and some find their way to gambling joints, KTVs or as hostesses in clubs. Most of them say that it’s a job like any other, with pros and cons, and more and more tell me that their parents do know what they are doing and are OK with it.

Harassment
Most of the women report some form of harassment. This mostly takes the form of men trying to touch them, or making repeated sexual advances, to in extreme cases driving up and exposing themselves. However, actual physical assaults are rare. The girls mostly have strategies in place for dealing with this kind of behavior, including security cameras.

Effect of my work
I’d like to make it clear where my interest lies: “I don’t support the war, I support the troops.” I believe betel nut is bad for you and I would never recommend anyone to take up the habit. Furthermore, I do not believe that sitting in a glass cage wearing lingerie to attract passing men is a great profession. I would not want my daughter to do it. However, I do believe the betel nut beauties deserve more respect and understanding than they’re getting.

In terms of the effect that my work has had, I believe I’ve managed to challenge the entrenched perceptions about the girls being of poor character and the business being a front for prostitution. At the very least, I have kept the conversation going. On several occasions Taiwanese people have come up to me at my exhibitions and challenged me for spotlighting this part of their culture. They would rather not be reminded; ask why I don’t photograph the beautiful mountains and flowers of Taiwan. I tell them that I am interested in the human angle. After going through the exhibition, they often come back saying, “I need to go and think about this a little more.” Those are my most satisfying moments.

檳榔西施

在我12年前剛抵達台灣時,我開車經過路邊,看到一個個漂亮的小姐打扮清涼坐在明亮的玻璃櫥窗裡時,我很經驚訝台灣的妓女制度竟然如此地開放;當我問起朋友有關這件事時,我卻得到兩種不同的答案,「不是啦!她們只賣檳榔、香菸及飲料,不賣其它的!」或「噢!那些都不是好女孩,離她們遠一點,她們只會引起事端,而月也給台灣帶來不好的名聲。」

  感覺敏銳的我嗅到一絲爭議性的題材,使我更想深入地調查下去;因此,我鼓起了勇氣到了一家檳榔攤前,買了一罐布朗咖啡,想到若流氓老闆強迫我或被綁架我要求支付性交易費用的話,我都不確定自己該往哪裡逃了,但我的實驗及發現與我的期待實在是差異很大。
  身為一個紀錄片製片人,我一直對生活在邊緣的人很有興趣,而這特別的題材又沒有引起太大的關注,「我開始對人們對於女人的一些錯誤的階級觀念及根深蒂固的偏見等話題著迷,而我想要闡述她們的故事。」因而開始了我為期八年的探索,這部紀錄片從來沒有募款過,但這一系列的照片展卻吸引了一大批媒體的關注,且網路照片展也吸引了180萬人的點閱率之多。

3 Responses

  1. Excellent. Not only is this a wonderful article, but now I have factoids and visuals to go with Josh’s film.

  2. Excellent article, Tobie. One minor discrepancy, however. While it’s true that you usually travel with a Chinese speaking female to assist in explaining your craft and motives to the ladies, I seem to recall that, for a short but productive time, you traveled with a certain dashing and tattooed Chinese-speaking American male…yes…this might bear telling.

    keep up the good work!

  3. Fantastic piece, Tobie. Amazing shots too. We should all do what we can to “keep the dialogue going” and change perceptions. Well done!

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