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You may know it as bubble tea, tapioca tea, pearl milk tea, or boba tea. You may not know it at all. But, like popcorn chicken and scallion pancakes, bubble tea is a Taiwanese invention that’s grown to be beloved worldwide. And it’s not just a culinary triumph for the tiny democracy; it’s also become a symbol of important, and strengthening, international ties in the modern age.
Before we get to bubble tea’s diplomatic career, though, what is it, and where did it come from? East Asian cuisines, as the food writer and historian Fuchsia Dunlop has explained in her studies of Sichuanese food, prize texture much more highly than their Western counterparts. There is a concept within them of eating something purely, or mostly, for the pleasure of its mouthfeel, which is relatively absent in other food cultures. QQ is one of those prized textures, a unique love of the Taiwanese palate.
QQ gets its name from the Hokkien word for chewy (k’iu), and describes food which are soft, but which also offer resistance when bitten into. Mochi, handmade fish balls, and lye noodles are prominent examples of this beloved texture. Bubble tea is far and away its most famous sweet application, though.
The history of the drink in Taiwan is the subject of much fierce debate. Liu Han-Chieh, the founder of Chun Shui Tang tea room in Taichung, claimed that her product director created the drink by pouring tapioca balls into her tea and encouraging the business to start selling the resulting combination. Meanwhile, Tu Tsong-he, the co-owner of Tainan’s Hanlin Tea Room, said that he invented the drink when he saw the preparation of white tapioca balls, a traditional snack, in a nearby market, and decided to start adding them to cold tea in 1986. Whatever its exact provenance, the drink was quick to take off in Taiwan.
Initially, because shaved ice, milk tea, and boba were all individually popular traditional desserts, bubble tea was prepared by layering those three ingredients in a cup. Eventually, ice cubes, rather than shaved ice, became common, because the former was found to cool (and harden) the pearls too quickly, and new flavors of pearls and tea were introduced. Fruit tea, which incorporated other toppings like grass jelly or red bean, came into vogue, and shops popped up which specialized in just milk or fruit tea. It was also during this period that the name boba tea came into being; in Cantonese and Mandarin, boba is slang for large breasts, a reference to the spherical bubbles which were so large they required special straws to consume.
While bubble tea started out as a favorite of children, both for its strange looks and because stalls were often set up in front of schools, it spread rapidly through society. Not surprising, considering it combined one of the Taiwanese palate’s favorite flavors with its most beloved texture. Because those were, and are, also well-loved in Hong Kong, the drink made its way there in the late 80s and early 90s, and then to mainland China, which, in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao economic reforms, was eager for things new and foreign. (Hong Kong was a particularly good spot for expansion because its traditional style of milk tea, incorporating strongly brewed black tea and condensed milk, worked as well with tapioca pearls as the milder Taiwanese form). Elsewhere in Asia, its popularity has been more faddish, and in Japan and Singapore in particular, it has been both widely available and nearly impossible to find at various points in the last 20 years.
Taiwanese immigrants first brought it to the US in the 1990s, and, although it was initially well known only in Asian-American enclaves, its consumption gradually expanded to Hispanic and Native American communities, particularly the Pueblo, Navajo, and Hispano people. Independent shops and franchises of Taiwanese chains, like Happy Lemon and Onezo, both came into existence, and, eventually, bubble tea became more popular in mainstream American culture, especially among younger people. In cities all over the world, from London and Paris to Mumbai and Tel Aviv, boba tea can now be found.
Bubble tea hasn’t stopped at being a culinary ambassador for Taiwan, though. It has become a symbol and strengthener of international ties for the little island nation. Milk Tea Alliance started as a hashtag in 2019, when Thai and Taiwanese netizens, in response to attacks by China’s 50 cent army against a Thai drama actor who posted an image that showed Hong Kong as an independent country, took to the platform to support the protesters and hit back against Chinese attacks. Although the hashtag was initially humorous (fitting in with the general strategy of the pro-democracy netizens who, for example, posted “my country is poor but your country is pooh” in response to screeds by the wumao about Thailand’s poverty), it grew into a symbol of the linkages and solidarity between freedom movements across Asia, largely fronted by young people.
Due to the highlight which the hashtag placed on the coincidental movements, protestors and activists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar, as well as other Asian nations, have become more cognizant of and involved in each other’s fights. Rallies in Taipei supporting some of these other movements, put together by organizations who adopted the Milk Tea Alliance messaging and ideals, have attracted the support of national politicians and major NGOs in Taiwan. Border skirmishes and arguments about dams and water rights have likewise brought Cambodia, Vietnam, and India into the fold.
This Milk Tea Alliance, in which bubble tea stands at the representative forefront, may not seem like much, but it shows that discontent with the CCP and the territorial aggressiveness of China is widespread across the Asia-Pacific region and that many in the rising generation, in particular, holds a very negative view of that country and its government. It also displays a willingness to work together across languages, cultures, and borders, the exact opposite of what Beijing wants. Each kind of milk tea expresses a certain kind of national identity (Taiwan’s being especially important because bubble tea’s rise matches up with the cultural shift towards a distinctive national identity, and is one of the most representative symbols of the country worldwide), and them joining together shows their young citizens are willing and happy to make common cause in struggling for democracy, at home, and in the region.
As the situation grows worse in Hong Kong, the Milk Tea Alliance stands as a bastion of hope that all is not, and will not, be lost.Published in