Taiwan's Betel Nut Culture Deeply Engrained

Betelnut palms
Betelnut palms
Annual production value has fallen sharply in the past decade, but the fruit of the betel palm still ranks as the second largest cash crop for Taiwan farmers.

Published in AmCham’s Topics Magazine

After declining for years as health and environmental concerns cut into consumption, Taiwan’s betel nut production last year increased to 144,195 metric tons, up by more than 7% from 2007. Are more Taiwanese seeking the mild high of betel chewing as a form of relief from hard times?

Although the 2008 production volume was still 16% below the peak year of 1998, betel nuts – the fruit of the betel palm – remain the island’s second-largest cash crop after rice. According to 2003 statistics (the latest available) on world betel nut production, Taiwan accounted for a 21% share of the global total, exceeded only by India’s 51%. Domestic production is also supplemented by small amounts of imports.

At least in the Taipei area, it is no longer common to see the pavement stained red with betel spit, or upon opening a taxi door to catch an acrid whiff of binlang – and then to glimpse the ghastly orange grin of the cabbie.

But you cannot drive far from the city center before spying the spiked neon sign identifying a betel nut stand, where scantily clad women in brightly-lit windows reminiscent of Amsterdam’s Red Light District deftly prepare the “Taiwanese chewing gum” behind plexiglass.

An estimated 70,000 stands are spread out across Taiwan.

Betel “nuts” are actually a kind of fruit known as drupes (peaches, plums, and cherries are other examples). These small, walnut-sized fruits of the Areca catechu or betel palm grow in clusters of 250 and have been chewed throughout Asia, from Papua New Guinea and Guam to China and India, since time immemorial. Marco Polo mentioned the habit in his account of his travels in the thirteenth century, and ancient texts on traditional Chinese medicine recommended betel nut for expelling worms and warding off the effects of dysentery and other infectious subtropical diseases. Archaeologists have even found evidence of betel nut use in 4,000-year-old burial sites in Kenting and Beinan in southern Taiwan.

Betel nuts have been an integral part of Taiwan aboriginal myths, rituals, and customs surrounding work, courtship, marriage, friendship, and even medicine (as an aid in digestion and breath-freshening). Besides chewing for its effect as a stimulant, the plant has a long list of uses, including applications as a vegetable, medication, lubricant, fuel, wrapping material, fiber for making clothing, and as a source of tannin. In addition, betel nut juice can stain the user’s lips an attractive red hue – a reason why traditionally indigenous women chewed betel nuts more frequently than their male counterparts.

Although betel nuts are sold in a variety of forms, in Taiwan they are most often prepared by slitting open the nut, filling it with a lime paste (calcium oxide mixed with water), and wrapping a betel leaf (actually from a separate plant, the evergreen Piper betle) around the nut. The final product – called a “betel quid” – is usually sold at roadside stalls at a price of NT$100 (about US$3) for a bag or box of 20. Valued primarily as a stimulant, areca nuts contain alkaline phytochemicals that can have powerful pharmacological effects, inducing euphoria and raising the user’s heart rate and skin temperature.

Production and consumption of betel nut grew rapidly in Taiwan in the 1970s. Annual production value, however, has declined since 1998, when it peaked at NT$14.15 billion (US$420 million). The government’s Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics gives the 2007 figure as NT$8.6 billion (US$261 million). Pingtung and Nantou Counties are the major growing areas.

In the 1970s employers handed out betel nut to blue-collar workers to keep them alert and productive. As the fervor spread and domestic demand increased, farmers began replacing their rice paddies with betel nut plantations. Demand continued to rise into the 1980s, as chewing became an expression of Taiwanese identity amidst the ongoing democracy movement.

As betel nut chewing became more and more popular, the practice was eventually identified as the leading cause of oral cancer in Taiwan. In 1985, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found betel quid to have addictive, carcinogenic properties due to the presence of arecoline – a substance similar in structure to nicotine. Yet despite health campaigns aimed at disseminating this information, consumption continued to rise.

The first national campaign against betel nut chewing was launched in 1994. But it wasn’t until mortality from mouth cancer rose in 2004 to become the fifth highest cause of death among Taiwanese men (up from ninth place in 2002) that betel nut gained national prominence as a serious health issue. In that very same year, the IARC identified arecoline as a likely agent behind the pathogenesis of oral submucous fibrosis, a condition that can be fatal because of its potential to turn into oral cancer.

Oral cancer is relatively rare in Western countries, but in some South Asian countries, it ranks first among types of cancer. According to the World Health Organization, a disproportionate number of the world’s cases of oral cancer in men occur in parts of Asia where betel chewing is common. Research by Hsu Chiun of National Taiwan University Hospital reported that from 1981 to 2000, a huge increase in oral cancer among Taiwanese men paralleled a nearly sevenfold rise in Taiwan’s production of areca nuts. Moreover, in 2005 Wu Chien-yuan, then a Department of Health (DOH) division chief, noted that “About 88% of those who suffer from oral cancer in Taiwan are betel nut chewers.” She concluded that the approximately 1.5 million Taiwanese who chew betel nuts regularly are much more likely to develop cancer than non-users.

The government’s cumulative efforts – summed up by the Council of Agriculture’s 1995 adoption of a “Three No’s policy” of no encouragement of the practice, no prohibition, and no assistance – have gained only some traction. NTUH’s Hsu believes Taiwan has made headway in limiting areca-nut production. Yet “the domestic consumption of betel quid may continue to increase,” he predicts, “because more and more betel has been imported from other southeastern Asia countries in recent years,” notably Thailand and the Philippines.

Betel nut beauties

A Betelnut Beauty makes a sale in Banciao City, Taipei County. Photo: TdG
A Betelnut Beauty makes a sale in Banciao City, Taipei County. Photo: TdG
Enter the Betel Nut Beauties, the often skimpily clad young women staffing the betel nut stands by the side of the road in many small towns and even in some larger cities. They have become a uniquely Taiwanese cultural icon now well-documented in film and photography, a distinguishing characteristic that sets Taiwan apart from other betel-loving nations.

The original betel nut beauties are believed to be the “Shuangdong Girls,” who in the 1960s helped glamorize the opening of the Shuangdong Betel Nut Stand in Guosing Township, Nantou County. The marketing tactic worked – and spread like wildfire around the island.

Tobie Openshaw, a South African documentary filmmaker, has been following Taiwan’s betel nut girl culture for 10 years. “This is a real person sitting up there, and one shouldn’t judge and one should just give them the benefit of the doubt,” he recently told National Geographic. “These are strong independent girls who do what they’ve got to do, and use what they’ve got to make an honest living.”

Betel nut girl Lee Ching-jie tells of her experience. “This job for me is like any other ordinary job. I get paid, I come to work and don’t sell my body,” she says. “There are some perverse clients who come simply because we wear few clothes. I wonder why they judge us in this way, because there are a lot of female celebrities on TV who wear exactly the same thing.”

Even The Betel Nut Girl phenomenon appears to be on the wane, driven out of the busier sections of the capital city as police increasingly lose patience with betel nut business obstructing traffic. As far back as 1992, Taipei city councilors were embarrassed into demanding that betel nut purveyors cover up “The Three B’s” – breasts, buttocks, and bellies. Women’s advocacy groups such as Garden of Hope also weighed in, arguing that the women, often teenager runaways from troubled family backgrounds, are exploited.

Despite the hype, however, the average betel nut shop today is a rather low-key affair. Take Better Leaf Betelnut, a stand that has been operating on a backstreet in Banciao for 20 years. Three “girls” work 8-hour shifts, cutting Piper leaves in three, inserting lime paste into a nut, and wrapping that in the leaf. Almost all their customers are regulars from the neighborhood and always place the same order. At the end of their shift, they count the cash and take inventory; a peek at the shift’s total cash sales showed NT$2,075.

May Lee from Chiayi, 35, has worked there until midnight for the last eight years. It was her first job, advertised in the local paper, and was attractive as something that “doesn’t require any experience, because the boss will teach you how to do it.” She and her husband have a son in junior high school. When asked if she likes her job, she laughs easily enough. She gets just two days off a month and earns NT$20,000, but describes her workplace as “a conservative shop” with no pressure or rules about attire. “If you work where you have to wear sexy clothes, you get trouble,” she says.

Another betel nut stand has been run by the Chang family in Chonghe, Taipei County, for 20 years. Once a week, they phone a middleman to order delivery of a truckload of nuts. Most of the shipments come from Chiayi and Pingtung, where “the soil and water quality is best,” says Chang, adding that the family-run businesses in southern Taiwan have special techniques for cultivating the “juiciest” nuts. There are summer and winter prices, varying from NT$3 to NT$5 per nut.

Chang, 33 and unmarried, runs the stand together with his two brothers. They are the second generation to operate the stand, but if he has children, Chang emphasizes, he would try to provide them with a good education so that they would have better options than taking over the business. Asked about the decline in the betel nut market over the past decades, he cites the shift in Taiwan’s industrial structure from labor-intensive factories to IT. In the past, he says, betel nut provided something akin to “a caffeine charge” for blue-collar workers, “like coffee to keep them awake.” Now even those performing heavy labor work shorter shifts, though truck drivers continue to be good customers. Chang also mentions the effect of changes in public perceptions about the safety, sanitation, and environmental impact of betel nut chewing.

Today, spitting betel nut juice on the streets may result in a NT$1,200 fine, a policy in place for a decade but only strictly enforced within the past few years. A watchdog system is also a recent addition; neighborhood residents reporting offenders can earn NT$300 “commissions.”

Environmental concerns

In both 1996 and 2001, the government vowed to scale back betel production in the wake of extensive typhoon damage. On both occasions little was done, however, because many mountain communities are totally financially dependent on betel cultivation. The betel palm’s shallow root system was believed to contribute to soil erosion, flooding, and the increased possibility of severe landslides. Aboriginal communities in the mountains are often particularly hard-hit, trapping thousands when flooding destroys the roads.

The issue again came to national and even international attention this month when Typhoon Morakot dumped nearly three meters of rain in three days in what CNN billed as a “once-in-200-year rain event.” Several villages were completely destroyed by subsequent flooding and mudslides, but government officials have said that betel planting this time did not play a role in the disaster.

Illegal betel nut plantations can still frequently be seen on mountainsides in southern Taiwan, though officials are finding that addressing Taiwan’s acute flooding problems may involve looking mainly at other factors, such as improving the nation’s system of water resource management.

A major reason why betel nut stands continue to thrive is that they are largely unregulated, putting them somewhere in a gray area between regular business and black market activity. “They have a rough idea of what they need to pay in taxes and pay a certain amount,” says Peter Chen, a neighborhood chief in Chonghe. One popular perception is that the stands are protected by gangs, but Chen says that no protection money changes hands. Still, Taiwanese gangsters are fond of chewing betel nut, he notes, and as regular customers they take an interest in looking after their friends, the stand-owners. That may explain why betel nut “beauties” feel safe working late at night on a lonely stretch of highway.

Additional reporting by Rosanne Lin and translation by Tai Chen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *