Some of the most curious landmarks on the roadsides of Taiwan are small, brightly lit glass stands that sell betel nut, a mild stimulant. What they are perhaps most famous for are their saleswomen, called betel nut girls, or, by another common translation of the local term for them, “betel nut beauties.” These young women stand in the glass enclosures wearing revealing clothes to attract customers, who are primarily working-class men. In his series A Moment of Beauty: Betel Nut Girls, the photographer Chin-pao Chen captures documentary portraits of more than 100 such saleswomen.
Chen, who is from Taiwan himself, was 26 years old when he began shooting Moment of Beauty, in 1996. He travelled throughout the island over six years, photographing the women in their workplaces. “Most girls would agree” to participate, he said, “but I also had to gain the permission from the owners of the stands.” A strategy for securing permission, Chen eventually learnt, was to chat at length with the owners before quickly moving on to the photography, taking as little time with the employees as possible. He would later go back to the stands to give the women copies of their portraits.
Betel nut girls are a source of moral controversy in Taiwan. The government has passed laws regulating their profession—including a dress code that requires their breasts, buttocks and bellies to be covered at all times—and prohibited them from working within the city limits of Taipei, the national capital. The betel nut trade is often criticised because the saleswomen frequently face abuse. Many of them are under 18, the age at which one may legally become a betel nut girl. Chen said his subjects were, on average, 22 years old, but some were underage, and one was only 15. While some claim that the women’s work is a form of sexual exploitation, others say the betel nut girls are simply making free economic choices.