It's a girl world at the betel nut stand

It just takes a pretty face and an affable manner to bring in the dollars selling Taiwan's favorite narcotic, and skimpy outfits and platform shoes are all part of the appeal

By Yu Sen-lun - 17 August 2003

     Around 9am, Wu Sheng-kuang (吳聲廣) begins another day at his betel nut stand on Kuanfu Road, Hsinchu City. Upstairs in a "cage" less than 5m square, two young men prepare the betel nuts. Wu brings the nuts, packed in small plastic bags, downstairs and puts them in a large fridge. Two girls arrive at about this time, changing quickly from jeans and T-shirts into their working costumes: tank tops, hot pants and 15cm-high platform shoes.

On the wall is a card with employee regulations: makeup must be worn at all times when working; employees should clock in only after changing and putting on makeup. After the girls arrive, Wu rolls up the iron doors and switches on the neon lights of his glass booth. His shop, Hot China Girls (中國辣妹), is open for business.

The shop is right next to the highway entrance going from Hsinchu to Taipei, a perfect location for the glass showcases from which the betel nut beauties peddle their wares. Along a 100m stretch of road there are seven betel nut stands, each decorated with colorful neon. In between there are stalls selling Hsinchu specialties such as rice noodles and meatballs. Wu owns two of these stalls and another betel nut stall called Miss China (中國小姐), only a few meters away from Hot China Girls.

Wu Sheng-kuang, proprietor of the Hot China Girls


     Wu has been running betel nut stands for more than 10 years, and says he was one of the first to set up at this location. From the start, he decided that girls were to be a major part of the operation. "I knew that the girls would be the key to my business, so I treat them very well," he said.
Taiwan Betel-nuts      Wu said he pays the girls NT$40,000 a month. He also buys them sexy costumes and platform shoes. "If the girls wear clothes they don't like, they feel unhappy and are less motivated. This is bad for business," Wu said.

     It is a woman's world inside the glass betel nut stand. The small counter is covered with cosmetics: Japanese eye-shadow cases, shiny colored lipsticks and mascara. On the side in the small cabinet, there are piles of sexy costumes. They are all very skimpy so they don't take up much space.

Production value (output value): NT$13.3 billion a year

Consumer population: 2.8 million

Consumption value: NT$100 billion a year

Major production region: Pingtung County

Source: Academia Sinica, 1998

     Wu does not show up at the betel nut stand very often, spending most of his time upstairs preparing the betel nuts, but keeping an eye on the girls and business generally through surveillance cameras. "If there is a man inside the stall, customers will not usually approach the stall," he said.

     When reporting this story, Wu asked our male photographer not to stand inside the stall for too long. He said to me: "You're a girl. It's OK for you to stay here." This was simply for the good of his business.

     Ting-ting (婷婷), 17, who is helping out at Hot China Girls arrives in the afternoon. She grabs a bright purple colored tank top and goes to the dressing room. She chooses a pair of 18cm high heels with thin ankle straps. "I'm not tall, so I need the extra height," she said.

     Like her work mates Hsiao-yeh (小葉) and Hsiao-min (小敏), Ting-ting said she found this job from newspapers. "The boss doesn't demand a lot. He just wants us to be responsive and quick whenever a customer approaches," she said.

Hsiao-min returns to the glass betel nut stand after serving a customer while Hsiao-yeh fixes her make-up. Wu Sheng-kuan, proprietor of Hot China Girls, prepares betel nut for sale, below left. Annie, who markets a line of dresses targeted at betel nut girls, shows off some samples.


     According to Wu, the girls at his stand can enjoy the most luxurious treatment. They don't need to prepare the betel nuts themselves, as all the nuts are prepared and packed before hand. All they need to do is welcome customers who pull up by the stall. They are basically sales girls. "If you sell more than NT$10,000 a day, you get a bonus of NT$300," Wu said.

     Pretty girls have become so much part of the business that Wu is willing to spend between NT$1,000 to NT$3,000 per dress for the girls. Despite this expense, Wu says he still manages a net profit of at least NT$100,000 a month. And that is just from Hot China Girls.

     Hsiao-min, 19, a student at a technical college, also takes an afternoon shift. She wears a long yellow dress that is slit almost up to her waist. Hsiao-yeh, 18, her companion on the shift, wears a white tank top and mini-skirt.

     Both Hsiao-yeh and Hsiao-min's clothes were designed by Annie (who declined to give her last name), the owner and designer of Annie's Hot Girl Costume Workshop (安妮辣妹服裝工作室).

     Every day, Annie drives her van, stopping at betel nut stands across the island promoting her betel nut beauty costumes. In six years, she has become a major clothing supplier for Wu's betel nut stall. "On average, I stop at around five to 10 betel nut stands a day, showing samples to the owners," Annie said. She said she is the only supplier who provides designs specifically targeted at betel nuts girls.

     Annie, who has many friends working in the betel nut industry, said that her clothes gave the girls more style than those purchased at the night markets. Her business has now expanded to providing clothes for girls working in clubs and bars and for girls working in motor racing venues such as Lungtan in Taoyuan County.

Annie with Hsiao-yeh

     For the girls like Hsiao-yeh and Hsiao-min, apart from the long hours standing in high heels, this is not a bad job. You can wear fancy clothes at work and listen to your favorite music. Once in a while, admirers give them red envelopes of money, flowers or expensive gifts. On the counter, there is a big bouquet of flowers sent by an admirer of Hsiao-yeh's. Hsiao-min is even luckier. She was given the latest pink Panasonic mobile phone by an admirer. Last month, she also received a gold necklace.

     "Some of the customers have become friends and sometimes they'll even buy you a lunch box," said Hsiao-yeh. When faced with customers who want more than just betel nuts, Hsiao-yeh said they are sent packing: "We just give them a cold look and say we don't sell that here."

     For customers who think they can take advantage, Wu said they might find themselves beaten up. "We make them apologize and they must give the girls a considerable sum of money in a red envelope," Wu said.

     Wu acknowledged that some stands had girls who wore no underwear or who were available for sexual services, but insisted that his stalls had nothing to do with that aspect of the business. "Our main business is to sell betel nuts and the most important part is that you have to have pretty girls," he said.

     "Besides, those who offer sex are mostly the ugly girls," he added.