檳榔西施 Betelnut Beauties
(Some images are model-released.)
Betelnut girls (Binlang Xi Shi/檳榔西施) are a unique part of Taiwan culture. They sit in brightly-decorated glass booths wearing skimpy outfits, and sell cigarettes, drinks and betelnut to passing drivers. It’s a controversial trade but not actually illegal. The question of whether the girls are exploited is open to debate – certainly their own perception is mostly that they are doing a job like any other, and the less they choose to wear, the more they sell. For more info, see my article here: www.culture.tw/index.php?option=com_content&task=view..., or see the Wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betel_nut_beauty and follow the links to the video and pictures.
© Tobie Openshaw. If you wish to use any of these images, (for any purpose - yes, even if you just want to link to it from your blog) please contact me at topenshaw@hotmail.com

MORE NOTES:
I have had several interesting questions about the betelnut girl business, so I would like to offer some thoughts, to those who are inclined to read a little and not ONLY look at pictures :) (This is reworked from a response I posted on the last pic in this set)

The most common question is how did I manage to get the girls (who are notoriously camera-shy) to agree to me photographing them. Yes, I have to put in the time and patience to win their trust. And still for every 10 there might be one that actually works out in the end and becomes a willing subject. But I have been inspired by girls like Ada who has been generous in sharing with me her experience of the job, Sally who thinks it’s all a lot of fun, and Amy, who is working in the stall by day and studying part-time by night.

Next question: "SURELY these girls are actually prostitutes, right?" Ok …actually no, I have never been offered sex by a betelnut girl. This perception that they are prostitutes is widespread and I guess understandable. But this has not been my experience. Note: I am not saying no betelnut girl ever turned a trick in her spare time, or that a career in selling betelnut doesn’t sometimes spiral down into gangsterism, drugs and prostitution… just that the majority of the girls are quite adamant about their personal boundaries, and quite frankly they are stuck in a brightly-lit glass box for very long hours - hardly a place for paid sex..

But there are big regional differences in how the girls dress and act. There are reports (and I have some video evidence – not shot by me) of guys down south paying an extra fee and the girl either flashing for them or allowing them a quick grope. Up north where I live, the industry has been steadily upgrading its image with well-designed booths, dress codes, and no visible hanky-panky. I always ask the girls about harassment by customers, and the answer is always that yes, of course it happens, but that they have strategies in place to deal with it. They also have security cameras at most all the stalls and the word on the street is that anyone who gives a betelnut girl trouble is likely to end up having to deal with her boss and his buddies.

There is anyway a big turnover with these girls. They stay at one stall for anything between 6 months or a year, and then move on either to another area, or drop out of the business. Like most people on the fringes, they are (with some exceptions, such as Sally, who has been doing it for many years – she’s over 30) almost all hoping to get out of the business and move up to something better. Often, like in the case of Ada, this means going to work in a gambling joint or something like that - not much better, except more dressed. But the smart ones – and I have met several – typically dropped out of school early, are now regretting it, and are taking night classes or something. Ada wants to be an accountant, she’s a lovely, smart girl, and I believe she can make it.

The most obvious response to the phenomenon is to experience it as pure sex object ... “a (beautiful) object in a (beautiful) box” – the design of the stalls certainly reinforces that and sometimes that’s what I like to capture in my photographs … but more importantly, I also try to capture the real person, to make the object real and show that she might be more than you thought you knew – and she deserves more respect than she’s getting.

I know this all sounds pretty lofty – and the truth is this is still very much a work in progress. But that’s where I’m at right now. And thanks for your interest!
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