BY WAY OF DISPLAY
Urban tactics in the context of the betel nut culture in Taiwan
About the film By Way of Display (2003, 37 min.)
In Taiwan, the commercialisation of the sale of betel nuts—a mild stimulant when chewed—has spawned the development of a new makeshift building type, the betel nut stall. These temporary stores or simple mobile units, staffed by ‘Betel Nut Beauties’ who dress in tight uniforms to attract their customers, have cropped up all over the country. By Way of Display tells about this specific phenomenon by focusing on its urban, cultural and social contexts.
THE INFORMAL SECTOR
Booming economic growth spurts as well as recessions develop new urban spaces and new forms of life and survival in accordance with their respective cultural contexts. In Taiwan, a society which lives predominantly in cities, a new space- and work-provision branch, often subsumed the informal sector, has emerged as a result of the extremely fast economical development of the second half of the last century and the necessity to manage this state of affairs. During this period, existing buildings were illegally expanded in all directions, a situation that was tolerated due to the need for increased production and storage space. Living rooms suddenly became factories, and the ‘family as a factory’ became a promotion slogan. Mobile makeshift constructions emerged for the selling of everything possible.
Probably the most culturally interesting and particular sector is that which has developed out of the new marketing strategies for betel nuts—a new, independent culture, created by various regional and global influences.
PLANTING – SELLING – CHEWING
According to the most recent studies, the chewing of betel nuts can be traced back thousands of years to mountain tribes in the southwestern part of the island. In the 17th century the first wave of the Han came from southern China, and it was they who adopted and continued this tradition. Today the cultivation of betel palms, which often takes place illegally, especially in the mountains, and the subsequent marketing of betel nuts, are a national economic factor.
Betel nuts are consumed predominantly by long-distance truck drivers and males in the lower economic classes who each consume as many as dozens a day. The effect of chewing is a feeling of warmth in the body caused by the stimulation of the central nervous system, acting as an aphrodisiac and also mildly intoxicating. However, it is also claimed that regular consumption can lead to oral cancer. The cultivation of betel nut palms and the marketing and consumption of the nuts have now found their way on to the streets of Taiwan. Throughout the country there are roughly 100,000 ‘booths’ selling betel nuts, and these are most commonly found along highly frequented roads, crossings and highway turn-offs. From a distance, truck drivers can identify these booths by their peacock signs made from colourful fluorescent tubes, and by their often large number of flashing lights. The signs overpower the confusing density of billboards and advertisements concealing the building facades, and this illumination of the street spaces increases as one gets closer and closer to the betel nut booths. Floor-to-ceiling shop windows, roll able glass boxes or containers on stilts, all painted in happy colours, are supplied with cut-out glass surfaces and mirrors offering a spatial structure for young girls wearing tightly fitted ‘uniforms’—the so-called ‘Betel Nut Beauties’ (Chinese: binlang hsishi).
If one pulls up in front of one of the booths, a Betel Nut Beauty swiftly steps out to your vehicle to take your order. Betel nuts, cigarettes, energy drinks, information about the area and, if it is not too busy, a brief chat are all on offer. It is this service, the conspicuous appearance of the girls combined with the possibility of having a short interaction of closeness during the otherwise dreary work-a-day world, which is the most essential aspect of the success in the bitterly contested betel nut market.
PERFORMING THE STREETS
With the swift expansion of the highways, brought about by the construction work in the cities and the resulting massive increase of commercial traffic in the booming 1970s and 1980s, the habit of chewing betel nuts quickly spread throughout all regions of the country and also within the cities. At the same time came the growth of the informal sector, in the form of illegal expansions and extensions to existing buildings, in order to cover the rapidly increasing need for space. The streets were marked by temporary stores, simple mobile units, and the early betel nut stands were no different.
However, the great pressure of competition at around the middle of the 1990s forced many betel nut vendors to develop new marketing strategies, and tactics for attracting clients became increasingly sophisticated. With the use of colourful, flashing lights and scantily clad girls a lively display was designed to seduce the senses on otherwise rather unattractive streets. The girls change their ‘costumes’ every day—nurse, military, school uniform, or characters taken from Japanese Manga stories, are just some of the themes that are alternately presented to the motorised clients. Taipei-based architect and Urban Flashes initiator Chi Ti-nan sees this as deceptive appearances, as a kind of tactic on a micro-urban level that urban planners and designers can learn from.
The potential of the street as a space for performing is here explored in a highly delicate way. Sometimes the girls will stray out into the traffic, waving and using dance-like movements to make their presence known, and giving them a sense that they are the stars of the streets. This self-impression of out-of-the-ordinary is supported and displayed in these colourful productions by incorporating ingredients of the pop culture: flashing lights, loud pop or techno music and spicy costumes. Though such offensive strategies generate higher profits, they also very often result in hefty fines and sometimes traffic accidents. It is hardly surprising, then, that the owners of these betel nut businesses have developed increasingly ingenious systems of disappearing. One example of this is the vending box on bars, which can be pushed from the pavement into an existing building within a minute. And other booths can easily be loaded onto a truck and set up for business elsewhere. However, apart from the other negative effects of the betel nut business, for example land erosion through illegal cultivation, mainly in mountain regions, or the possible damage to health, this phenomenon is an example of dynamic and creative spatial intervention, which has, without planning, quasi anonymously arisen in an in-between area of official structures. Here we are dealing with a cultural form that develops out of its own traditions, current conditions and foreign influences, where thousands of stands along the busy streets have created an authentic service network over the entire island, the potential of which can provide other possibilities for communal and cultural development.
Published in: AD/Urban Flashes Asia, Vol 73, No5, John Wiley, London, 2003