Is Taiwan a conservative society? Are Taiwanese people prude, family-oriented, and faithful to their partner?
Before going to Taiwan, basing my opinion on what Taiwanese had told me, I would have answered all these questions with yes. But after living there for some time, I began questioning my assumptions.
In many of my posts I have tried to explain some features of the Chinese/Taiwanese family which make it clear that every Western perspective on East Asia should take into consideration the different values and social structures that the Chinese-speaking world has developed over the centuries.
In this post, I would just like to mention a few interesting cases of liberal sexual conduct and the objectification of the female body, which challenge the image of Taiwan as a prude society.
One day I was walking around the German city of Potsdam, near Berlin, with a Taiwanese. She often told me that Taiwanese people were conservative, Taiwanese girls naive and innocent. But on the other hand, she told me things that were at odds with these ideas. For instance, she kept on asking me why waitresses in Germany were so ugly. “If restaurants hired pretty girls,” she reasoned, “more customers would come. People like beautiful things.”
She wondered if she should apply for a job as a waitress. In fact, she was very beautiful, and I assume that some male customers might go to a restaurant only to see her. But she was disappointed to find out that Germans don’t give tips. She wouldn’t have earned as much as she had hoped, so she gave up the idea.
Over the years, I gradually realised that a lot of women in Taiwan accept to play roles that serve male stereotypes in order to get an economic or social advantage. As I will explain in another post, this willingness is not limited to professional life, but it extends to the search for a marriageable partner, too.
Let me now give you 6 examples that show that Taiwan is in reality a highly sexualised society, or at least not less ‘libertine’ than Western countries. I will discuss some of these points more in detail in later posts.
1) Sexy Girls Are Good For Business
The following video shows a TV anchor from a business-focused Taiwanese TV channel. A pretty girl with an extremely low-cut dress and a sexy body appears next to a normal-looking man who explains some serious stuff.
The use of female bodies as a marketing tool is very widespread in Taiwan. Be it ‘beer girls’ (girls who work in restaurants or clubs, who approach customers and advertise beer), sexy dentists, sexy shopkeepers, sexy cosplay girls in department stores, etc., it seems that the objectification of the woman for business purposes bothers neither the general public nor women themselves (generally speaking, of course).
2) Agong Dian
Prostitution in Taiwan is widespread. There are massage parlours, bars, barber shop etc., which offer various sexual services. There are also online services where you can ‘book’ a girl and then go to her flat or let her come to you.
In the old district of Wanhua, there are also establishments called Agong Dian (阿公店, literally: “granddad shops”), unlicenced parlours with hostesses, mostly frequented by elder men (hence the name) (note). The Agong Dians are only one of the different kinds of legal and illegal brothels in Taiwan, not to mention all the prostitutes that operate privately, offering their services online.
According to a Taiwanese group called Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters, there are around 100,000 sex workers operating in Taiwan (note). This is a large number if one thinks that in 2013 the total amount of residents from English-speaking countries living in Taiwan were less than 15,000, which means that the number of English teachers in the country may not exceed this figure (note).
Nevertheless, the number of sex workers appears to have halved over the past two decades. An article from the LA Times published in 1990 described Taipei as a paradise for sex-related services:
“Taipei is a city of lust,” City Councilman Yen Chin-fu said. “Girlie restaurants and bars are everywhere, even in residential and school areas. Some are next to police stations.” (note)
The article also mentioned the issue of families selling daughters to brothels. This problem had been analysed by Margery Wolf, as I will show in another post.
As Taiwan got richer, the sex industry has diminished in size and many of its worst social consequences have disappeared.
Below, you can see a video about Agong Dians
3) Betel Nut Beauties
If you happen to drive on certain highways in Taiwan, such as some stretches of road in Taoyuan, near Taipei, you may see booths with girls sitting inside. If you stop in front of one of the booths, a young, sexy, scantily clad girl will totter on high heels out of her box and come to you smiling. She is a so-called ‘betel nut beauty’ (Chinese: 檳榔西施; pinyin: bīnláng xīshī), a uniquely Taiwanese phenomenon (see video below). Betel nut beauties sell products like drinks and chewing gum on highways, and their usual clientele are male workers, such as truck drivers or commuters. As the name suggests, though, their most profitable merchandise are betel nut.
In the mid-1990s the business of attractive girls selling betel nut exploded in Taipei and then spread to the rest of the country. Competition among girls was fierce, and it led to them wearing increasingly sexy and revealing clothes, to the point of being nearly naked (see Dave Tacon: Taiwan’s Betel Nut Beauties. In: Geographical. Volume: 84. Issue: 8. August 2012, p. 32). As the LA Times noted, betel nut beauties don’t sell their body. They use their body to sell products (note). From this point of view, they are not entirely different from other similar categories, like the ‘beer girls’.
Starting in 2002, the government cracked down on the ‘betel nut culture’, which was blamed for damaging the nation’s image abroad and for causing moral decay (Tacon 2012). Consequently, the betel nut beauties disappeared from Taipei City and from many other areas, choosing to retreat to less visible places. Their business is still worth millions of dollars, though.
4) ‘Booth Babes’
‘Booth babes, like the ones you can see at Taipei Computex, are a common marketing strategy in Taiwan. In the male-dominated environment of tech shows, booth girls create a ‘stimulating’ environment, and attract more male customers. The sexual appeal of the show girls is obvious, though not openly stated, and it is clearly calculated to market products more effectively to a male clientele.
5) Sexuality and the Media
Tabloids like Bild Zeitung in Germany or The Sun in the UK are known for their erotic or semi-erotic sections. Taiwanese tabloids are in this respect second to none. For example, Apple Daily, Taiwan’s most popular newspaper, has many articles with sexual content, and even a page entirely dedicated to ‘beauties’ (see here).