Sunday, 16 March 2014

How Conservative Is Taiwan? - 5 Cases of Sexuality in Business, Marketing and Media

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). 

13 comments:

  1. its not a big deal for me. but im curious, none of these phenomenons happens to italy? at least online prostitutes exist everywhere i suppose? I think there must be similar industries that objectfy the female in other countries, just in different ways.

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    1. I agree, the objectification of the female body is a phenomenon that exists in Italy, too. For example, there are some famous TV shows with half-naked girls that dance. Still, I personally think that what I see in Italy is way less extreme and widespread than in Taiwan. As to online sex, I know nothing of the kind in Italy, but I would have to ask you other people, maybe they know some.

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  2. ^ It's common in the UK too and Italian football shows are famous for having very attractive, scantily-clad women co-hosts who appear to know little about football.... The interesting thing in Taiwan is that these sexy things don't fit the national self-image as I understand it, very Confucian and decorous - Taiwanese complain that K-Pop is too sexy, just as Americans wonder why K-Pop stars are so conservatively dressed compared to American pop stars!

    I do think there are limits to this sexualisation in Taiwan though that you don't see in Europe or America. Taiwan has quite strong taboos around sex and nakedness that aren't very familiar to me as a European. When it comes to relationships, for example, the idea of a fling or a one-night-stand is far more accepted in the UK than in Taiwan where relationships are usually serious. Taiwanese seem to have very few sexual partners before marriage. So this sexualisation is quite a surface level thing for me, though it's really prevalent - Taichung definitely still has the Betel Nut culture! But the girls aren't necessarily a signifier of sex, it's something more subtle than that...

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    1. Hi David,

      thanks for your comment : ) In this case I don't agree with your opinion. As you may have noticed, many posts on my blog are devoted to refuting this myth of the highly moral and family-oriented Taiwanese. Not because I am prejudiced, but because my idealised image of Taiwan, where I hoped to find a higher morality than in Europe, has been turned upside down by what I have observed and what I have read.

      For instance, you talk about the decorous Confucian family. But you forget that the Confucian family was based on arranged marriages where love didn't matter much, and that polygamy (that is, polygyny) was widespread among the elites, with the Emperor having thousands of concubines. Obviously, we cannot apply our own ideals of marriage to the Confucian tradition. Polygyny is still practiced by a large number of men, especially those who can afford to have mistresses and frequent brothels / bars / clubs. As to taboos regarding one-night-stands, I don't think they really exist. People just try to cover them up, while Westerners talk about such things more openly.

      As you correctly mentioned, there is a self-image of the Taiwanese which is in my opinion the attempt to preserve individual and collective face against external condemnation. I will write a post about this topic, comparing Taiwan with the Japan of the 19th century, where pornography and prostitution began to be marginalised from public life and removed from public display because many Westerners (more or less hypocritically) found Japan's libertine relation with sexuality shocking. It was a case of 'face-saving' policy, of superficial adoption of Western standards for the sake of reputation.

      As I have mentioned, I don't think this sexualisation of the female body is something more subtle than what it actually is. You are right in that these things also exist in the West, but we don't have nurture this self-image of sexually moral and pure people, so that the situation is less schizophrenic. What interests me, is the quite extreme extent of sexualisation of the female body one sees in Taiwan, concealed by a desire to appear in the eyes of others sexually and morally virtuous.

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  3. Taiwanese are inherently conservative. Nut girls, show girls beer girls and funeral girls...etc. didn't appear until about a decade ago. The way i see it, Taiwan has been deeply affected by western world because of the internet and globalization. It was a big change for us but we didn't even notice that. We learn things from western by a superfical way, so now you see it. So there is a song that I consider an insult to Taiwan named "talk dirty to me". But Taiwanese people are still conservative and decorous inside. Things that only last for a decade can't turnover the value of thousand years.

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    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Actually, I disagree with your point. As I have already mentioned in other posts, it is wrong to depict traditional Taiwanese or Chinese family as highly moral. In the past, phenomena like foot-binding, concubinage and polygamy were widespread and are well-documented. They show how female sexuality was an instrument of family planning and was a component of traditional social structure. Prostitution, too, already existed and was very widespread.

      The idea that East Asia has been corrupted by Western 'perversion' is actually a myth that has no basis in history. I recommend you "Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan" by Margery Wolf. She discusses the issue of prostitution in 1950s/ 1960s Taiwan. Obviously, Western influence was much weaker in those days than now. Wolf explains that many girls from rural families worked as prostitutes, and that there were parents who encouraged their daughters to do this in order to earn money. And if you read the article I quoted in my post, you will see that prostitution in Taiwan was more widespread in the 1990s than today.

      If prostitution and the sexual objectification of the female body already existed in traditional Taiwanese society, although the West's influence on Taiwan was weaker before, then it means that Western influence is not to be blamed for these phenomena. Perhaps, the real change brought about by modernisation (and not Westernisation) is that women now are more independent and the role of female sexuality in contemporary society is more determined by women themselves than by men and parents-in-law.

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  5. Interesting article. And good points in your comments. I think I might pick up Wolf's book you mentioned. I am actually going to Taiwan in September for a year or two. Please keep the posts coming. I really enjoy your blog.

    Thank you.

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  6. I do not think that a conservative society and explicit sexuality is necessarily a contradiction: In such societies, this is rather a phenomenon of certain niches. My (unscientific) theory is that having a strict morale/rules in society as a whole, there will always be an outlet with a somewhat immoral apsect. This can be liberal sexual niches (prostitution, parts of the media, promiscuity in certain groups) but also widespread drug abuse, an extreme party culture or violent behaviour.

    Random examples from Germany are: nude culture in the socialist GDR (East Germany), carnival culture (mainly drinking) in the German Catholic South, a vivid porn culture in Japan. But you can also find this in micro-societies: bullying culture in many armies or abuse in the Catholic church. If these phenomena are regarded as immoral by social standards, they are often denied or at least ignored in public which fits with the conservative mainstream again.

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  7. I do not think that a conservative society and explicit sexuality is necessarily a contradiction: In such societies, this is rather a phenomenon of certain niches. My (unscientific) theory is that having a strict morale/rules in society as a whole, there will always be an outlet with a somewhat immoral apsect. This can be liberal sexual niches (prostitution, parts of the media, promiscuity in certain groups) but also widespread drug abuse, an extreme party culture or violent behaviour.

    Random examples from Germany are: nude culture in the socialist GDR (East Germany), carnival culture (mainly drinking) in the German Catholic South, a vivid porn culture in Japan. But you can also find this in micro-societies: bullying culture in many armies or abuse in the Catholic church. If these phenomena are regarded as immoral by social standards, they are often denied or at least ignored in public which fits with the conservative mainstream again.

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  8. I have been in Taiwan for about 18 months. I still can't decide if they are conservative or not. They still have lots of old school morals like the girls living in the house with their parents. But, then like you said, you look on the highway and you can see these girls dressed like complete tramps.

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  9. Gendor stereotype and objectification bothers ME, ALL THE TIME. And I'm a female local Taiwanese. But what I find offensive, it never seems to bother other people. It's like I'm the only person awake. There are discrimmination not just against women, but against men as well. Taiwan has a long long way to go achieve real gender equality in my opinion.

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  10. Most astonishing factoid from this article: "She was disappointed to find out that Germans don't give tips." Imagine her even bigger disappointment when she some day will find out that she missed a great job opportunity, since in Germany a 10% tip is quite the norm pretty much everywhere where Waiters/Waitresses work - unlike in taiwan, where tipping is not too common ;-)

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