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Behind the betel and areca Tay Thi girls that make Taiwanese men ‘crazy’

Behind the betel and areca Tay Thi girls that make Taiwanese men 'crazy' 1

Behind the betel and areca Tay Thi girls that make Taiwanese men ‘crazy’

Standing on the side of a highway on the outskirts of Taipei, a girl in her 20s, Ling Ling, wore a tight top and see-through short skirt that revealed the tattoo on her hip.

A girl in Taiwan is selling goods to customers.

In many other cities, people like Ling Ling can receive scrutiny as if they were prostitutes.

`The more beautiful you are, the more money you make. That’s why I dress like this,` Ling said.

Each betel selling girl earns about NT$40,000 a month (more than $1,300 USD), which is higher than the salary of an office worker in Taiwan of about NT$26,000 (more than $850 USD), according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The trend of betel and areca betel betel girls appeared in the 1960s and was most popular in the 1990s. Today, betel and areca selling booths appear on every major street in Taipei, mainly serving drivers, workers and workers.

But behind the beauty of Taiwan’s sexy betel and areca Tay Thi girls, there are hidden stories that make people reconsider this image that attracts a lot of attention.

Rare intoxication

Chen Wen, a taxi driver, said while spitting red liquid into his plastic cup while chewing betel: `Thanks to it, I can work for many hours, it’s great!`.

According to Tay Thi girls, chewing betel can bring a feeling of `soul flying`, some even mention the effect of instantly eliminating alcohol.

Johan Nylander, CNN reporter, had the opportunity to be offered betel by a local man when he came to Taiwan.

Just a few seconds after Johan put the betel into his mouth to chew, a shock ran through his body.

At the same time, Johan’s mouth quickly filled with saliva, causing him to spit it out – the orange-red liquid printed on the sidewalk.

Deadly addictive substance

According to the World Health Organization, 10% of the world’s population eats betel, the fourth most widely used stimulant after tobacco, alcohol and caffeinated drinks.

Areca nuts cut lengthwise, mixed with lime and wrapped in betel leaves have long been compared to chewing gum in the eyes of Taiwanese people.

But unlike coffee, betel can cause oral cancer.

According to data from Taiwan’s Ministry of Health, about 2 million Taiwanese have the habit of chewing betel, with the largest group being between 30 and 49 years old.

Behind the betel and areca Tay Thi girls that make Taiwanese men 'crazy'

Behind the betel and areca Tay Thi girls that make Taiwanese men ‘crazy’

Scene of the betel and areca booth of a `Tai Thi bridegroom` in Taipei.

Many betel sellers and buyers say that the betel leaves are not harmful, but the areca part is completely beneficial to health.

Hahn Liang-Jiunn, president of the Taiwan Association for Betel Control and Oral Cancer Prevention, said that there are many reasons why indigenous people like to chew betel, despite the health risks.

Many people who work outdoors such as construction workers, long-distance drivers or fishermen find they feel healthier when chewing betel.

Mr. Hahn commented that the custom of chewing betel also has a social aspect: `It’s easier to get to know people who often chew betel, rather than people who have a habit of smoking. That’s why young people start chewing betel.`

Habits need to be broken

Taiwanese officials are urging people to give up the habit of chewing betel.

Since 2014, the Taipei city government has begun organizing betel addiction treatment classes to help many people quit this habit. Failure to attend will result in a fine of 5,000 – 300,000 New Taiwan dollars (about 165 – 9,900 USD).

According to Taiwan’s Waste Treatment Act, those who spit out betel juice can be fined 1,200 – 6,000 New Taiwan dollars (about 40 to nearly 200 USD) and attend detoxification classes.

Behind the betel and areca Tay Thi girls that make Taiwanese men 'crazy'

The men stopped the car in front of a betel stand.

Mr. Hahn said that Taiwan is also trying to get betel and areca farmers to switch to cultivating other crops such as tea, oranges, tangerines or mangoes.

In 2002, Taiwanese authorities realized that images of girls selling betel and areca nuts wearing skimpy clothes were inconsistent with traditional customs and could distract drivers, leading to traffic accidents.

In 2007, Taoyuan district officials issued regulations on the attire of betel and areca girls.

The future of the betel and areca Tay Thi girls

Black teeth from chewing betel have long been no longer a symbol of beauty in Taiwanese society, especially for young urban people.

`I used to chew betel when I worked in a factory 10 years ago, because everyone around me had this habit. But when I moved to Taipei, almost no one of my friends around me chewed betel, and since then I have never chewed betel.

From 2007 to 2013, the proportion of adult Taiwanese men chewing betel dropped by 45% to 950,000 out of a total of 24 million people, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Health.

In a roadside shop in Taipei, Xiao Hui, a longtime betel seller, prepares goods for customers while looking after the small child behind him.

Behind the betel and areca Tay Thi girls that make Taiwanese men 'crazy'

`Even if the government says that eating betel can cause cancer, many customers still come back to buy betel from me. Just eat it,` Xiao said.

Xiao wants a different future for her three daughters: `I don’t want them to chew betel, that’s not good for their health. And I also don’t want them to become Tay Thi betel nut, that’s not a good job.`

South African photographer Tobie Openshaw said: `Taiwanese people have classist attitudes towards betel and areca selling girls – who often come from poor rural areas and drop out of school early.`

Tobie pursued a 9-year reportage project about Taiwan’s betel and areca girls.

He shared: `Tay Thi girls who wear revealing clothes often receive a lot of prejudice. Regardless of customs or health issues, betel and areca booths actually become an urban art feature.

Pham Huyen

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