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.
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 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.
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.