Last week, Travelers’ Tales press announced the winners of the 2013 SOLAS Best Travel Writing awards, and to my delight, one of my essays took home the silver in the Travel and Food category. Of course, I’m most humbled to be included among a number of other excellent travel writers, some of whom I’ve had the immense pleasure of interviewing on Travel Writing 2.0 (Chris Epting, Lola Akinmade-Akerstrom, Tom Miller, and Pam Mandel). A heartfelt congratulations to all the winners!
If you’d like to read the winning essay, you can read it on Your Life is a Trip where it was originally published, or feel free to read it here, reprinted below. Enjoy the lovely–and haunting–story of the betelnut princesses!
Legend of the Betelnut Princess
This is not exactly the betelnut princess I’d imagined. This woman is sitting outside her dimly lit one-room apartment tying waxy betel leaves around smooth, ivory-colored nuts while her daughter does math problems and sips a cup of mango juice. She is wearing an over-sized t-shirt and a long skirt and has a ginger beer beside her. She has been tying betel leaves for hours, piling them high in a green mountain in a glass case, slipping one every once in a while between her blood-red lips. It is these lips—stained with the tell-tale hint of scarlet, covered in that color I’d come to know as the betelnut smile, that I can’t stop thinking about as she hands me a paper bag.
We are on the tiny tropical island of Xiao Liuqiu, a wet and humid place off the southwest coast of Taiwan. After driving home on the motor scooter we’d rented that morning, Matt—an adventure writer from Canada and my traveling partner for the week—and I sit on a wooden swing outside of my purple bungalow overlooking the sparkling lights on the shores of the South China Sea, and I learn the legend of the betelnut. As he tells me the story, I chew and spit the delectably foamy, grassy-tasting areca nut and betel leaf combination into the grass.
The legend begins thousands of years ago, he says, with one of the four fabled beauties of ancient China, a concubine called Xi Shi who is rumored to have lived during the Yu Kingdom. According to historical accounts, Xi Shi, who began her life as a mere silk washer, was so beautiful to behold that when she washed garments in the stream, fish would become so ashamed at their mediocrity that they would hide at the bottom of the riverbed until she finished. Men built her temples, gave her magnificent palaces, and showered her with jade and other jewels.
Like so many legends of female beauties, hers, too, ends in tragedy. After becoming a woman of the court, she was kidnapped by a minister, taken away on a boat, and never seen again. Some say she was drowned, some say she killed herself, some say she lived to old age as the prisoner of a lust-filled man. The day she disappeared, though, was the last day she was ever seen.
In modern Taiwan, her descendants, lovingly named after her—the binlang xishi—are the betelnut princesses. These princesses stand in twinkling glass boxes, blow kisses at men in cars, and sell semi-narcotic drugs. Their smiles, rumored to be as seductively heart-stopping as Xi Shi herself, are mysterious, alluring, and unmistakably shrewd, telling a shopper everything he needs to know. It’s in here. With me.
As Matt finishes his story, I remind him that in our three days on the island, we haven’t seen a single betelnut princess. As I look up from where I’ve spit beet-red betelnut into the grass, I notice the night lights twinkling from the main island of Taiwan. “Where are they?” I ask him. “Where are these blinking glass houses?”
He admits he isn’t sure. After all, though he taught English in Taiwan for seven years, it’s been almost five years since he’s been to Xiao Liuqiu. “I can’t remember if they were down here or not,” he says, “but I’m pretty sure we’ll see loads of them up north. They’re everywhere.”
Crawling into my king-size canopy bed that night, the salty sea wind blustering through the windows in my purple bungalow, I have sporadic dreams of meeting a princess. I’m not sure if the areca nut worked its magic on me or not, but as I turn over, and over, and over, trying to find sleep, I can’t help but wonder what she might be like, and if we’ll be able to talk, woman to woman, at all.
A day later, we’ve taken the ferry off the island and hopped the high speed rail back up the coast, getting off at the Keelung station in northeast Taiwan and hailing a taxi to the high mountain region of Tien Lai. On the train, I had checked internet sources and leafed through my guidebook, searching for accounts of the princesses. There were encyclopedic entries about them, small blurbs in travel guides about their proliferation in the northern part of the island, unbiased historic accounts of how a 1960s marketing campaign to sell liquor turned into one of the most interesting use of women’s bodies in the country’s history. Real encounters with them, however, were remarkably slim. Most accounts were from men who’d purchased product from them, and descriptions of the girls themselves were cursory, sexual, or simply transactional. The girls feel like night lights on the mainland—visible, untouchable.
I think about what I’ve learned about Taiwan this week—I think, mostly, about the women. How they could be so conservative by day and so unabashedly sexualized by night. They dress in proper clothes until sunset, and they visit clubs in bra-like tops, platform heels, faces decorated in thick black eyeliner, pink cheeks, and red lipstick. I think of my first experience going to a club with the Taiwanese girls I’d met that week, how they’d been shocked when I’d arrived in a spaghetti-strap tank-top, jeans, and my regular makeup. They’d decided to make me over, to decorate my face, to doctor up my plain American style—to make me look, as they’d told me, like a princess. It only took an application of eyeliner, lipstick, blush, mascara, and eye shadow to do it.
A bright yellow taxi takes us through the cobblestone streets of downtown Keelung, and we catch glimpses of sex shops and brothels, restaurants, and 7/11s. Our driver laughs enthusiastically and tells us in a mix of Mandarin and English that this isn’t the, well, best part of town. I wish I knew how to ask our driver to take us to a betelnut booth—if they were going to be anywhere, here’s where business would probably be best.
Perhaps remembering that my Mandarin consisted of all of three words, the universe decided to cooperate with me. I didn’t need to ask after all. Turning a corner, our eyes suddenly catch the refraction of colored lights. I see the lights at an intersection, rimming a dusty and dirt-smudged box no larger than a telephone booth, blinking in rainbow colors. This, I’m sure, is a betelnut booth.
But this box is filthy, covered in grime, its floor littered with trash, dirt, and leaves. Clearly, no one’s been conducting business out of this booth for a very long time. Perhaps it’s the location. Bad intersection, maybe? We speed through several more stoplights, my eyes are glued to the taxi window.
A few blocks later, as the street winds away from downtown, we pass another. And another. And another. By the time we’ve reached the foothills, the mist spiraling around the trees and the stoplights diffusing into balls of white light, we’ve passed six houses. And it has finally occurred to me as we pull to a stop in front of the last one: Something has happened to the betelnut princesses.
The realization hits me like a jolt of areca nut to the brain: all of the boxes are empty. Instead of seeking betelnut girls, I am chasing ghosts.
Since the cultural proliferation of the betelnut princesses began in the early 1960s, the mysterious betelnut has been studied, dissected, experimented with, and researched. Medically, we know now that the combination of areca nut and betel leaf are now known to be a carcinogen, causing not only mouth and throat cancer but also ulcers and severe gum deterioration. The combination causes permanent stains on the lips, mouth, gums, and teeth. Culturally, the scarlet-red gums and blackened lips have become linked with connotations of exploited women and poverty. Women’s rights movements have begun rallying against the exploitation of women, and interest groups have begun taking down booths in the name of protests.
The betelnut princesses, it seems, are becoming their own kind of legend, a relic in a Taiwanese past. The real princesses are the women themselves, women who are relishing in their sexuality and enjoying the freedom of expression.
I know this because I’ve met these women and I’ve seen who’s replacing the princesses. Our last night in Taiwan, returning to Taipei by taxi, I ask our taxi driver to make a quick stop at Raohe, one of the most appetizingly curious night markets in the city. I immediately see a betelnut seller—a very ordinary man—nestled in between sellers of sweet pastries, noodle bowls, and fried eel balls. The nuts seem comfortable here, as if they’ve taken their place among the rest, freed from glass houses. I don’t see a long line at the stand, though, and I don’t see anyone with the tell-tale lips wandering around, waiting for the rush.
But I feel her, the betelnut woman on Xiao Liuqiu, her hands a blur of wrapping, tying, and tossing, her smile red and bloody as we drove off on our scooter into the cool island evening. Perhaps she herself was a princess one day. Perhaps she’s only heard of the betelnut princesses, knowing them only as legends, as I do. Perhaps she’s never heard of them at all.
The beauty of this story, after all, is absence. As long as sex sells, I know, there will always be women with long legs and hot lips selling products. And as long as Taiwan holds its history sacred, there will always be betelnut, in wedding ceremonies, in night markets, in bowls on dining room tables. But there will not always be princesses. While I know they still exist—somewhere on this oblong-shaped, spectacular island—my Taiwanese trip leaves me with nothing but legends. Like Xi Shi, whose memory rests in an ivory-carved statue in a Chinese temple across the sea, the legend of the betelnut princesses lives on in dusty boxes on the side of the road, still glittering with very old lights.
A special thanks to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau for graciously sponsoring me on this trip.