Friday, June 18, 2010

Betel Nut Culture in Taiwan

I'm off gallivanting around Taiwan this weekend and won't be blogging. So enjoy this piece on Betel Nut Culture in Taiwan, which has excellent photos from the awesome Tobie Openshaw.
Since the late 1990s, betel nuts became the second largest selling crop in Taiwan after rice. The betel nut industry in Taiwan is worth about $1 billion USD and grows about 140,000 tons per year.2 A reason that led to the success of the betel nut industry in Taiwan is the lack of regulations under the Nationalists administration since 1949, which helped turn betel nuts into a cash crop. For a long time, there were no laws or taxes placed on farming or selling betel nut, thus earning its nickname as “green gold.”3 As the betel nuts are sold fresh and must be processed within 48 hours of picking, there are no barriers between the wholesalers and the vendors.4 So far, aside from the betel nut girls, the wholesale marketing of betel nuts is practically free from corporate influence and governmental regulation.5 In addition, due to the lax regulation on betel nut farming, more people began to exploit the lands to create more betel nut farms and as a result, it has brought attention to a number of environmental issues, such as soil erosion and flooding.6
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Anonymous said...

I passed a gaggle of Betel Nut stands every day on my way to work about 15 years ago ... one stand in particular caught my eye each morning because of the particularly fetching Betel Nut girl.

One morning I was feeling adventurous and stopped at her stand. She skipped out to the car, scantly clad, in revealing but tasteless attire. Quite satisfying.

I ordered one box of Betel Nut, she skipped back in and skipped back out with my purchase.

She smiled, I smiled and popped a nut(no pun intended), we smiled together as I paid up and was on my way to the office.

I made it about 100 yards and had to pull to the side of the road to hurl ... I've never looked at Betel Nut girls quite the same way since.

While I recognize the problems with Betel Nut; health and environmental, if/when Betel Nut stands are no more, a colorful part of the culture will certainly go with them and an underground network will spring up.

This is a tough nut for the government to address as so many people depend on Betel Nut production and sales for their living. With all the health warnings ... it doesn't appear to have discouraged the use.

A unique Taiwanese conundrum.

Have a nice ride Michael and keep the rubber side down ...

Michael Turton said...

One thing that I find tiresome is the constant focus on the exploitation of females in these articles. The girls who sell betel nut get ogled. The working class men who use it get.... cancer. Who is really the exploited class here?

les said...

My problem with the use of young girls to sell nut is that it can easily be the start of a slippery slope greased by easy money. They get used to high wage for the amount of actual work, and that can be addictive.

Sage said...

I don't think there is a question who the exploited class in Taiwan is.

Many are aware of an educational system that has traditionally favored the Han and oppressed Taiwanese.

Many are aware of the attempt of the KMT to suppress a culture, even punishing school children for speaking their their native language.

But with the broader issues the island is facing today, I have difficulty putting Betel Nut stands, the girls that choose to work in them, or the choice of men to chew the stuff up front at this moment in time.

The health concerns with Betel Nuts and cigarettes is not a good thing. And that there are girls who feel the need to work in these establishments is a pity. But maybe this is a symptom of broader issues.

The environmental concerns that betel nut growing presents to an island prone to earthquakes and typhoons and certain mud slides, alone makes one wonder why a government would not take action as least to regulate.

As a father of daughters and granddaughters, I'm sensitive to exploitation. But I'm not totally sure this is applicable in every instance of this situation.

Never considered that the girls were there for any reason other than selling nuts and butts, or that they might not be there by choice. But I suppose some could be.

That the government doesn't seem to touch this situation with tenacity, might be the same reason they totally ignore traffic, pedestrian safety and/or corruption. They are inept and the population it impacts they're not overly concerned with anyway.

It would be nice to see consistent "public service" announcements regarding; littering, smoking, betel nut chewing, traffic & pedestrian safety, etc. Backed up with enforcement, beginning with the crosswalks. It's all about education in the end.

The KMT certainly spent at least energy, if not money, during the early and mid 80's spreading their propaganda on Taiwan's two or three government controlled TV stations.

However, I can imagine that any politician in Taiwan who would get on the band wagon about shutting down Betel Nut stands in Taichung county alone, would share a similar fate as a anti-gun politician would face in Texas.

The water ways in and around Taichung are disgusting, open sewers, vile air quality, zero police effectiveness ... A ruling party in the process of selling off the island, workers rights issues, on and on. You've got a buffet of battle fronts.

While Betel Nut stands are not a tasteful reflection of Taiwan and/or the Taiwanese, it is part of the culture and can only be addressed by a government that puts its citizens first via education and a pro-active policies.

In the meantime, I can find the humor in a unique institution like Betel Nut stands without promoting the exploitation of women or ignoring the dark side in general.

Nevets said...

Great article yet why doesn't it mention the gangster element? Who owns the majority of stands? How long can a mom and pop stand be open before it gets visited by the local triad demanding protection money? Perhaps it is no longer that way?

Anonymous said...

"I made it about 100 yards and had to pull to the side of the road to hurl ... ."

It's a shame that you didn't learn how to chew bing-lung correctly before your first try, this would have made all the difference.

There are two types of betel nut for sale. One most common type is a whole nut with a leaf wrapped around it, this type is best for everyday chewers. You have to bite off the thin "stem cap" located on one end of this type of betel nut, spit out then pop the nut in your mouth.....maybe this is what happened to you?

The other type of betel nut sold is with a slit down one long side ... this is usually slightly smaller, softer/less woody in texture, sweeter tasting, easier to chew down to a cud and I think is the best one to try first.
Bing-lung is not for every one, but it's an experience that all foreigners should try at least once while here (though, having said that,I'm still working up the courage and intestinal fortitude to try my first piece of chow-tofu (stinky tofu)

Most wai-gwo-rens I've encouraged to try bing-lung didn't like it at all...but cherished photos with their wild eyed, red mouthed laughs outside the betel nut stand.

btw there is zero chance of teeth staining or mouth cancer from trying just a few betel nuts or "bing-lung"...but chew a box per day for a few months and you'll definitely have a habit, pronounced jaw muscles and red stained teeth.

Here's how you chew betel nut..
Place the betel nut in one side of your mouth and crush it into a cud with your back molars, trying not to swallow any of the saliva/betel nut juice.

After about a minute of constant fast, hard chewing and grinding, your mouth should be full of juice, make sure your cud is worked together into a ball, including any little pieces on your tongue and teeth and it's wedged in between your back molar and the inside of your mouth, then bend over and out purse your lips and spit this juice on the ground if at a farm etc or into a cup. Now continue chewing and swallow the saliva in small amounts....after several minutes more your cud will loose it's flavor, spit it out and wait for the mild effects. If tipsy, bn will clear your head and sober you up, if sleepy, bn will perk you up.

It really warms the body, great for cold winter nights.

The best time to chew betel is after a big meal as it really does make the "full" feeling go away

or if acid reflux occurs. One Betel nut works well as they are alkaline.
The downside (apart from ten or more times chance of getting mouth cancer than non-chewers)is that it makes your gums recede at a rapid rate
and as with many "uppers" it's difficult to get to sleep afterwards ...and next day I feel like my "motor" is running at about 80%...I feel slow and lethargic and down all over...but only if I chew a box full or more.

I've chewed bing-lung for twenty years ...but rarely two days in a row and chew at least one or two boxes every three or four weeks, with one or two betel nuts given to me every week or so.

I really like the buzz I get from betel nut.