A glass kiosk stands at the side of the highway, covered in gaudy neon lights. Inside, a young woman with her body more exposed than covered sits at a glass table, making something. Photographer Masato Seto spotted this mysterious scene when on assignment in Taiwan, and later covered it in his binran photo collection. Today, Seto introduces us to the hidden world of betel nut (bīnláng) stands.
Written by Chiemi
Translated by Kevin Mcgue
How did this project start?
The cover of Masato Seto’s “binran,” published by Little More.
I spent about one week in Taiwan when on assignment for a travel magazine. When driving back from the mountains at night, I noticed several small kiosks that I hadn’t noticed during daylight. My interest was piqued, and I got closer, noticing the girls inside making and selling things. I was curious about just what it was they were making, and when I got back to Japan, I looked into it. I learned that this is the usual way betel nuts are sold.
What are betel nuts?
They are seeds from the Areca palm tree, about the size of quail eggs. The seeds are split in half, spread with lime and pepper, and wrapped in betel leaves. They are then chewed like gum. They excrete a red juice when sucked on that gives a buzz. The prices vary by season, but a box which resembles a cigarette box holding 10 pieces sells for around two dollars. They are mostly chewed by men and older people, and are sold all over Southeast Asia.
And what made you decide to start taking pictures of betel nut girls?
At first, I thought it was a hidden part of society, and it wouldn’t be possible to take photos of it. But when I looked into it, I found out that was not the case, and so I went back to start taking pictures. Of course, the betel nut girls can only speak Taiwanese, so I found someone to translate for me. Then I started taking photos in a particular area, before moving on to the next area.
Are the kiosks all over Taiwan?
Yes, they are. In Taipei, they are usually sold by old women. The type of kiosks that appear in my photos are all from outside of the capital. They are along the highways, but I did not know the exact locations, so I would ask taxi drivers.
It’s hard to imagine what it is like to drive up to one of the kiosks.
When a car pulls up, the girls come out and ask, “What’ll you have?” Drivers will answer “give me some water” or “give me some betel nuts,” and hand over some money. The girls reply “got it,” and go get the order. The places that have popular girls will have people waiting, even if the place next door is empty.
But why are the kiosks mostly glass, and the girls mostly undressed?
I think that is simply a way of bringing in business. These used to be more like neighborhood tobacco stands, but they all started to change around 20 years ago. Seeing this as a Japanese person, I thought that since these stands are not in a red light district like Kabukicho, then there must be some opposition from other businesses in the area, but that seems not to be the case.
So are they something like Budweiser girls?
Yes, that’s right! But they are not discriminated against, and appear to be on good terms with the neighbors.
Looking at the photos, there’s a certain darkness that comes off from these girls. Did you get a chance to talk to them?
Yes, I did speak with them. They are employees, and work morning, day, and night shifts at the kiosks that are open 24 hours a day. At night, there are always girls around, and they seem to make good wages. They are actually quite positive about what they do.
Some of the photos in the collection show the girls looking quite at home, bringing their personal things into the shops, and painting their nails. Is that just to kill time?
Yes, that’s right. They also prepare the betel nuts in the shops, so there is always a table in every shop.
Could you tell us how you went about taking the photos? Did you make rules for yourself?
I don’t just snap pictures. I use a tripod and set up the shots. But then I would tell them, “I’ll take it now,” which would suddenly make the girls feel self-conscious about what they were doing. I didn’t want to capture just the atmosphere, but also the details in a real way.
I think a lot of people will find out about betel nut stands for the first time from this article. Do you have any message for them?
Masato Seto at the Place M gallery in Shinjuku.
I would like everyone to go to Taiwan and check it out for themselves. Everyone is fun to talk to. Start by driving down the highway.
Finally, you often photograph people. What is the attraction of photographing people?
The things that people do are interesting, and this comes through on their faces. People are really mysterious, so I want to go on photographing them.
Masato Seto, thank you for introducing us to the world of betel nut kiosks!