- The Washington Times - Monday, December 23, 2002

TAIPEI, Taiwan The new regulation, in its simplest form, boils down to three nos: no breasts, no bellybuttons, no buttocks.
On this tiny island of the Republic of China, where one out of every 10 persons chews betel nut, the new policy for female vendors of the mild stimulant is intended to reduce demand and contribute to public morality.
"There's a time and a place for everything," says Chu Li-luan, commissioner of Taoyuan County, 30 minutes south of the capital city, Taipei. "Fundamental social norms recognize this. What needs to be banned is excessive exposure."
The nut, Asia's version of chewing tobacco, is actually a tiny seed of the areca, or betel palm, prevalent in South and Southeast Asia.
The best nuts sell for $3 for a pack of 20 or 25. A quick chew leaves the mouth feeling numb while producing a buzz that feels not unlike the sensation produced drinking a half-dozen cups of espresso.
Taoyuan County became the first in Taiwan to enact the flesh ban, and betel-nut sales at more than 1,000 stands there plummeted almost immediately.
"I was earning more than $1,000 a month," said one betel-nut vendor, dressed modestly in jeans and long sleeves, who gave her age as 23 but declined to provide her name. "Now I'll be lucky if I'm not let go, because sales are dropping."
While the loss of income will be painful for the young women, many of whom are the primary wage earners in their families, a reduction in betel-nut consumption might not be a bad thing.
The incidence of oral cancer in Taiwan has grown fivefold in the past 25 years, and government doctors say 88 percent of those who contract the disease are habitual betel-nut chewers.
The "betel-nut beauties" who staff the ubiquitous roadside stands began shedding their clothes in the late 1990s after the Asian economic turndown sparked cut-throat competition to lure the country's estimated 3 million consumers.
Betel-nut vendors in glass cubicles have become as common as roadside vegetable stands at harvest time, with young salesgirls wearing little more than what they would put on for a day at the beach.
Before the economic crisis, betel-nut ladies were earning base salaries of more than $500 a month, with commissions doubling earnings.
But as vendors became more scantily clad and police blamed rubbernecking motorists for several accidents, local officials, such as Mr. Chu, began to crack down.
Other localities are following suit.
The town of Jenwu in Kaohsiung County plans to limit sales to a three-mile strip and enforce a dress code.
Annie Lee, vice president of the Taiwan Research Institute, says that it is the owners of the betel-nut stands, not the women, who should be singled out.
"Betel-nut beauties are members of the working class, whose revealing dress is required by their employers," she said in a letter to a local newspaper.
The Garden of Hope Foundation, a church-related social-service agency, says that using scantily clad ladies to sell betel nuts is just another form of the sexual exploitation of women.
The women drift into karaoke parlors and bars, from where it's an effortless slide into the sex trade, a foundation report says.
Betel-nut ladies say they aren't ashamed of their work.
"Why should I be?" asked a 27-year-old vendor who declined to give her name. "I'm not trading my body like a prostitute. I'm as decent as any other working lady. I just dress sexy to attract buyers."

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