Beauty and the geeks

TAIPEI — What's the best way to sell a transistor-packed, 256 bit-memory, 750mhz-clock-speed computer graphics card?

With a fetching young woman in body-hugging vinyl, naturally.

Along with Taiwan's high-tech prowess, the island has in recent decades nurtured a rich "showgirl" culture.

Its trade shows may be one of the few places in the world where it's normal to tout a motherboard or similar geek-gear with two scantily clad women gyrating in unison to pulsing dance music.

The recent Computex in Taipei — the world's largest computer trade show after Germany's CeBIT — was no exception.

To be sure, Taiwan has no monopoly on trade show girls. But in the U.S. and Europe, where they're more commonly called "booth babes," the practice has come under fire.

Some think it's an offensive objectification of women; other female show-goers feel put off by promotion tactics that clearly aren't aimed at them ("Where's the booth beefcake?" they ask).

In response to such complaints, some trade shows have banned the practice.

In Taiwan, though, recession is a bigger threat to the industry than political correctness. And in tough economic times, being a showgirl just doesn't pay what it used to.

"Two or three years ago, you could make NT$10,000 (U.S.$300) for a day's work," said "Angel," 27, presiding at a booth touting cooling systems for desktop PCs. "Now, it's only about NT$5,000."

Still, it pays better than many other jobs. Angel said a typical starting salary in Taiwan is NT$30,000 ($900) a month, but an in-demand showgirl can easily pull in NT$50,000 ($1,500).

That financial incentive means there's no shortage of young Taiwanese women ready to squeeze into revealing outfits, learn a few dance moves, and hawk products for local and international computer brands.

Joanna, 26, a showgirl for a prominent local computer firm, said she'd been in the business for more than three years. "I'll do this as long as I can. The money is good."

How good? She says in her other job, teaching English, she earns NT$1,000 ($30) in a day; she clears triple that as a showgirl.

Within the showgirl world, there's a clear hierarchy. At the top are "zhuchiren," or microphone-wielding mistresses of ceremonies. They make the most money, because they need good English skills and a quick wit to keep the crowd's attention.

At the booth for U.S. firm Nvidia, one zhuchiren was turning on the charm. "That's it, you don't have anything to say?" she said teasingly to one show-goer who'd just scored a free promo product. "Don't you want to thank Nvidia for anything?"

At a similar product giveaway by U.S. chip firm AMD, the zhuchiren forced another man to repeat "I love AMD," three times into the microphone.

Below the zhuchiren are the dancers and floor-crawlers; they attract audiences (mostly men, it must be said) to the booth.

Emily, a 20-something showgirl for a graphics card company, said the downturn had thinned their ranks. "This year there are fewer showgirls, because the companies have less money. If they have less money, they'll spend less on dancers and showgirls."

Annie, 22, and Judy, 21, showgirls for one U.S. computer giant, said they thought the work was fun, and didn't feel disrespected. "Our company protects showgirls. They won't allow us to be sexually harassed," Judy said.

Ksenija Nikolska, a 20-year-old from the Netherlands, was one of Computex's rare foreign showgirls. It pays to be "exotic": She said she was pulling in NT$20,000 ($600) for a day's work at a graphics card booth. "Don't tell the others," she said with a laugh.

"Here in Taiwan, nudity, sexuality and showgirls isn't such a big deal," she said.

One Taiwanese trade show industry veteran, after hearing about booth babe criticism in the U.S. and Europe, said, "We understand that philosophy, but here we just have a different mentality.

"In Taiwan, we want to attract a big crowd to our booth, so showgirls are a tool for that," she added. "They're decoration and they always attract a lot of people."

The veteran said the showgirls were also scarcer at this March's CeBIT computer trade show in Hanover, Germany. "A few years ago, there were many showgirls at CeBIT, but this year there were very few, because of the bad economy."

Pity the poor guys at the bottom of the show performer hierarchy. As two Nvidia dancers writhed nearby, 10 young Taiwanese men in silver space suits, goggles and surgical masks entered with signs promoting U.S. chip giant Intel.

Looking like something from a Devo concert, they did a human wave for the cameras. How much do they get for such antics?

"We make NT$120 [$3.70] an hour," said one, his voice muffled by the surgical mask. "Of course we always make less than the showgirls, because they have to be sexy."

More GlobalPost dispatches from Taiwan:

From frontlines to commerce

Tiananmen 20 years on: Reflections from Taiwan

Apple under fire in Taiwan