by Kristin Mock
This is not the betelnut princess I imagined. This woman is sitting outside her one-room apartment tying waxy betel leaves around smooth, ivory-colored nuts while her daughter does math problems out of a textbook and sips a cup of mango juice. She has been tying betel leaves for hours, flinging them onto a waxy mountain of wrapped-up nuts piled high in a cloudy glass case, snatching one every once in a while and placing it between her lips. It is this, the stained lips, the tell-tale pink with a hint of scarlet, the color I’d come to learn as the betelnut smile, that holds my curiosity most 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 two-person motor scooter we’d rented that morning, Matt, a Canadian adventure writer who lived in Taiwan for seven years, 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.
The legend begins thousands of years ago 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 that when she washed garments in the stream, fish would become so ashamed at beholding her 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.
Her legend, though, ends in tragedy. After becoming a woman of the court, she was kidnapped by a minister of the court, 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. When she disappeared, though, she disappeared forever.
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 realize 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?”
Matt 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 here or not,” he says, “but we’ll see loads of them up north.”
Falling asleep that night in the king-size canopy bed, the salty sea wind blustering through the windows in my purple bungalow, I have sporadic dreams of meeting a princess. Tomorrow, I think, nestling into my pillow, there will be betelnut royalty in my plans.
A day later, we’ve taken the ferry off the island and the hopped the high speed rail back up the coast, getting off at 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. Encounters with them, however, were remarkably slim. The girls feel like night lights on the mainland—visible, and yet untouchable.
The rickety old taxi takes us through the cobblestone streets of downtown Keelung, and we catch glimpses of sex shops and brothels, restaurants, and 7/11s.
Then, without fanfare, without even a skip of a heartbeat, my eyes catch the refraction of colored lights. I see them at an intersection, rimming a dusty and smudged box, no larger than a telephone booth, blinking in rainbow colors. This, I’m sure, is a betelnut booth.
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: It’s not just the glare that makes it hard to see inside.
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, and 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.
These women, their stories, their history—they are becoming a finished moment in Taiwan’s contested history.
I know this because I’ve seen what’s replaced them. Our last night in Taiwan, we are back in Taipei and 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, there will always be women selling products, lips red and legs long. As long as Taiwan holds it 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—my Taiwanese trip leaves me with nothing but stories. 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.
Kristin Mock is an award-winning teacher, writer, and editor with a penchant for travel writing. In addition to working as nonfiction editor for The Sonora Review, a national literary magazine, her writing has been featured on sites such as Perceptive Travel and Hotel Scoop. She is currently pursuing her graduate degree in Rhetoric & Composition in Tucson, Arizona, and hopes, in the next few years, to become a professor of English and to find a way to balance her love for learning—the kind both inside and outside of books. Check out her website at www.kristinmock.com or join her on Facebook.