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Betel Chewing and a Dilemma of Depiction

In my new zine of collected drawings, there are a couple of these trivia pages briefly talking about practises/objects of SEA that I find interesting. 

One of those pages is about Betel Chewing in SEA history, you can read those images above, but basically it’s a really widespread practise with deep cultural significance. 

Here’s a free book that you can read online about it if you are interested:
Betel Chewing Traditions in Southeast Asia by Dawn F. Rooney

One of the coolest aspects of Betel Chewing is that it’s a social thing in the past; like alcohol or smoking but also something as matter of fact like chewing gum. 

Which is a really cool thing because then you have this common practise where you can build stories/narratives of or just having it as part of a mundane backdrop; like this drawing below. 

But the thing is, the practise of Betel Chewing often results in the users having stained teeth, especially in Southeast Asia, so it’s really really common for people to have stained or black teeth. 

This very significant and very visual consequence of Betel Chewing is something I struggle to know how to approach. 

Because most of our standards of beauty has shifted so much, black or stained teeth is nowhere near our contemporary standards of beauty, and it has become so unfamiliar to many of us in Southeast Asia. (Even though Betel Chewing and stained teeth is still common in parts of Southeast Asia now)

So any illustration of character with black teeth would be very jarring and carry connotations that are anything but matter of fact, in addition to that, drawing stained teeth will just make the character look like they have no teeth. 

So my dilemma is this, how do you depict elements of the past that were very widespread but are now so distant from our contemporary values that any depictions would be immediately distracting and probably even exotifying? 

This is a problem that has popped up before in the process of this project.
Bare chested women, penile implants, slavery; all things common in much of Southeast Asia history that are not straightforward to depict.

I’ve yet to figure out a creative/narrative method to approach all these issues, probably because they are not equivalent issues and are highly contextual.

And so, I’ve only inched towards them, feeling it out, line by line, drawing by drawing. 


Text by Mun Kao. This post was originally published March 30, 2020 on the A Thousand Thousand Islands Patreon.

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A Thousand Thousand Islands is no longer available on this website.
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