Taiwanese Heroin

It has been rainy rather than snowy around here of late, which is very unusual for this time of year. While walking in a cold wet rain I began to try and think of something that would make me feel better. Something that was cheap, would make me feel warm, and ideally make me spit horrible blood-red spit. Sadly the only thing that does that is betel nut, and you can’t get it in Pennsylvania.


Thinking about Taiwan and betel nut led me to do a bit of research that turned out to be pretty surprising.
I had always lumped betel-chewing in with all the other drug foods, tobacco, opium etc, and assumed that it appeared about the same time. According to Rooney Betel Chewing Traditions in South-East Asia, however, the custom goes back much further and probably should be lumped in with alcohol in a social, if not a chemical sense. Rooney is interested in ceramics, and thus the book is more about the elaborate betel sets that are common in Southeast Asia, but there is a fair amount in the book about the social context of betel use, again mostly in Southeast Asia.

I found a lot of this to be different than the betel customs in Taiwan. In particular she emphasizes that Southeast Asians would prepare their own quids, that it was a social ritual with considerable meaning, and, of course, that it required equipment that could be quite elaborate. In Taiwan betel was and I think still is a state monopoly, and it was sold from little stands in pre-made quids. It was also a distinctly Taiwanese and working class thing. Most of the foreign students would try it at least once, but none of the (mostly middle-class and mainlander) Taiwan students would touch it.

This leads me to wonder if the custom spread into China in a different way than it did in Southeast Asia. Rooney has pictures of elaborate betel sets from all over, but not from China. The one Chinese picture she has is a man selling betel in the market place (in 1805) who is apparently going to make up your quid for you. All of her stories about the role of betel in courtship ritual and such come from Southeast Asia. This may just be a source thing (It’s a fun book, but rather impressionistic) or it may be a cultural difference.

The obvious comparison, at least for me, is opium. Opium also led to the production of elaborate tools, and was associated with various forms of social interaction. It was also a quick high for physical laborers. In China you eventually get morphine and heroin which take over the quick high end of the market and leave opium with the better-off users and other social contexts. My guess is that betel made it to Taiwan as a working class thing and never really established cultural meanings beyond that. One bit of evidence for this are the different ways the custom has responded to decline. Rooney has the obligatory postscript on how this interesting old custom is declining in Southeast Asia in the face of modernization, and the Thais she talked to seem to portray it as rural, backwards thing that your grandmother did. I suppose the custom might make a comeback as a marker of ethnicity.

In Taiwan the response has been bin lang girls, who are not at all grandmotherly, and will bring a quid of betel out to your car and sell you the quid of betel and perhaps other things as well. This seems to be to be a set of associations that go well with the working-class relief thing and not at all well with the customs of our ancestors thing.

(The bin lang girls link is to Takao Club, which has some really nice stuff on Taiwan history.)


  1. I’ve been curious about the use of betel nut in South Asia, known as “pan.” This can be bought in Pennsylvania – or at least in New York and New Jersey. It is served quite differently – they don’t use the whole nut, and they add tobacco. I’m wondering if there is any evidence as to where the practice started and how it migrated? I know Taiwanese Aborigines claim the tradition to be indigenous to Taiwan, but I personally suspect it came from Southeast Asia…

  2. I’m not sure where it started, although the Rooney book says there is evidence of it going back thousands of years in Thailand. That it mixes with tobacco is not a big surprise. Tobacco-opium mixes were common in Java from the 17th century, and sometimes they tossed in lime leaves. I think opium-soaked lime leaves were a favored way to chew opium in Dutch Java. I will check on that. It seems that in the Early Modern period there were a lot of things that got tossed into the chewing/smoking mix and only gradually separate out into different customs. Betel seems to be the oldest of these, however.

  3. Originally from Taiwan and living in Boston for the past two decades, I chanced upon this web page.

    No, betel nuts have never been a “state monopoly” in Taiwan. In reply to Kerim Friedman, there is a hypothesis, still unproven, that aborigines from Taiwan populated islands across the Pacific Ocean.

    There is an interesting report by Yomiuri, the largest newspaper in Japan:
    Efforts afoot to save Taiwan betel nut culture. http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/features/culture/20071207TDY05308.htm

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