Urban tactics in the context of the betel nut culture in Taiwan

Karl-Heinz Klopf


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, in a predominantly urban society, a new space and work provision branch, often subsumed to as the informal sector, has developed. This development is the result of the extremely fast economic development in the second half of the last century and its necessity to handle this situation.
Existing buildings were illegally expanded in all directions, which was tolerated due to the need for production and storage spaces. Living rooms suddenly became factories. The "family as a factory" was a promotion slogan. Mobile makeshift constructions emerged for the selling of everything possible.
Probably the most culturally interesting and particular sector is the one, which has developed out of the new marketing strategies for betel nuts. A new independent culture created by various different regional and global influences emerged.


The cultivation of betel nut palms, the marketing and consumption of its nuts in Taiwan generate a special complex, which appears on the streets of the country.
According to most recent studies, the chewing of these nuts can be traced back thousands of years to mountain tribes in the south-western part of the island. In the 17th century the first wave of the Han, who came from southern China, adopted and continued this tradition. Today the cultivation of betel palms, often illegal in the mountains, and the marketing of betel nuts are a national economic factor.
Betel nuts are predominantly chewed 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. Furthermore betel nuts act as an aphrodisiac and they are mildly intoxicating. There is, however, supposedly proof that regular consumption can lead to oral cancer.
Throughout the country there are roughly 100.000 stores selling betel nuts, most commonly found at highly frequented roads, crossings and highway turn-offs.

From far away these stores can be identified by the drivers by their peacock sign made of colourful fluorescent tubes and by their often large number of flashing lights. The signs overpower the confusing density of billboards and advertisements that conceal the facades of buildings. This illumination of the street spaces increases as you get closer and closer to the betel nut shops. Floor-to-ceiling shop windows, roll able glass boxes or containers on stilts, painted in cheerful colours are supplied with cut out glass surfaces and mirrors. These offer a spatial structure for young girls wearing tightly fitted “uniforms”, the so-called Betel Nut Beauties (Chin.: binlang hsishi).
If you stop in front of one of these stands 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 offered. 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, presents the most essential aspect of the success in the bitterly contested betel nut market.


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 70s and 80s, the habit of chewing betel nuts quickly spread throughout all regions of the country and in the cities.
At the same time the informal sector grew in the form of illegal expansions and extensions to existing buildings in order to cover the quickly increasing need for space. The streets are marked by temporary stores, simple mobile units. In former times the betel nut stands were usually simple, mobile objects, which did not differ from other vending stalls.
The great pressure of competition at around the middle of the 90s forced many betel nut vendors to develop new marketing strategies. The tactics to attract 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 hardly attractive streets. The girls change their “costumes” every day. They dress up as nurses, soldiers, in school uniforms or as characters taken from Japanese Manga stories, alternately presented to the motorized clients. Taipei based architect Chi Ti-nan sees this as deceptive appearances, as a kind of tactic on a micro-urban level, which urban planners and designers can learn from.
The potential of the street as space for performing is here explored in a highly delicate way. Sometimes the girls dare to stray out into the traffic by waving and dance-like movements to indicate their presence even more directly. These girls often feel as though they were the stars of the streets. This self-impression of out-of-the-ordinary is supported and displayed in the productions made with ingredients of the pop culture: flashing lights, loud pop or techno music, and spicy costumes. Such offensive strategies lead not only to higher profits, but also very often to high fines and sometimes also to traffic accidents.
An additional aspect of this informal activity is that the owners of these betel nut businesses have developed increasingly ingenious systems of disappearing. One example of this is the vending box put on bars which can be pushed from the sidewalk into an existing building within a minute. Other shops can easily be loaded onto a truck and set up for business elsewhere.

Apart from the negative effects of the betel nut business, as there are for example land erosion through illegal cultivation mainly in mountain regions or the possible damage to health, the betel nut culture is an example of a dynamic and creative spatial intervention, which has without planning, quasi anonymously arose in an in-between area of official structures. Here we are confronted with a cultural form, which develops out of its own traditions, current conditions and foreign influences.
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.


A digital film feature with the title "By Way of Display" is currently being worked on and is dedicated to this theme. Starting with the urban terrain as a zone of ingenious tactics, specific processes of perception, action and communication, which distinguish the constitution of the spaces focused on in this work, are investigated.
The first screening took place as part of Urban Flashes Istanbul at Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center on September 8th, 2003 .

This text appears in AD/Urban Flashes Asia, Vol 73, No5, John Wiley, London, 2003