Neon-lit kiosks with scantily clad women are a common sight along Taiwan’s streets. But the ladies are not selling sex – they are peddling betel nuts.
The legalised stimulant is mostly chewed in Asia as a popular tobacco substitute, hunger suppressant, and breath freshener. About 20 per cent of Taiwan’s male population indulges.
The ladies selling them provide a headier mix.
They have been working on the streets since the 1990s, shedding more and more clothes to lure customers as competition intensifies among betel nut sellers.
An estimated 100,000 brightly decorated kiosks blanket the island, though they are banned in the city limits of the capital Taipei.
Earning significantly more than what they would have earned as waitresses or cleaners, the women – mostly from poor families – rush betel nuts to eagerly awaiting male customers in cars and trucks.
But the industry is controversial on several fronts. Conservatives in Taiwan see the provocatively dressed women as morally reprehensible. Women’s rights groups see the work as degrading. And health officials say betel nuts cause oral cancer and permanently stain teeth red.
The women themselves are also vulnerable to physical and verbal sexual harassment.
But despite these concerns and government efforts to rein in the industry, the betel nut beauties have refused to bow out.