A Drink from South-East Asia? The History of Bubble Tea

The bubble tea craze has hit new peaks in Singapore. 

Last year, a 7,000 square feet exhibition called the Bubble Tea Factory, opened at *Scape. Featuring more than 10 installations, the exhibition promised to be “an immersive, multi-sensory journey that takes you through an enchanting world of bubble tea.” Well-known brands like The Alley, Tiger Sugar and Milksha have also opened outlets here in Singapore. All signs point to a bubble tea boom happening in Singapore.

This isn’t the first time though. In the early 2000s, bubble tea was so popular in the heartlands that the number of shops had risen to at least 5,000. These small stores competed heavily with one another, engaging in price wars that led to subpar quality and low profit margins. Eventually, the bubble burst, with most of the industry folding or downsizing.

Is this time going to be any different? 

Roots

Bubble tea’s origins are shrouded in mystery and are hotly contested. The traditional theory attributes the sugary drink’s creation to Taiwanese tea houses in the 1980s. More specifically, there are two tea houses – Hanlin Tea Room and Chun Shui Tang – that lay claim to the drink. 

Hanlin argues that its founder, Tu Tsung-Ho, spotted white-coloured tapioca balls on sale at a market in 1986 and decided to add them to tea. After realising the tapioca balls increased the visual and textural appeal of the tea, he decided to sell the drink at his tea house, calling it pearl milk tea. Even today, Hanlin sells bubble tea with both white and black tapioca balls as options.

Chun Shui Tang claims that a 20-year-old employee, Lin Hsiu-Hui created the drink a year later in 1987. While experimenting with different drinks, Lin added her favourite childhood snack, tapioca balls, to iced milk tea. The resulting drink, according to Chun Shui Tang, was the world’s first cup of bubble tea.

Due to the subsequent popularity of bubble tea, both companies engaged in a fierce legal battle, trying to gain licencing and patent rights to the drink. However, neither could prove their stories in a court of law, and the drink widely featured on the menus of tea houses and stalls. 

A South East Asian Connection?

A Cendol stall in Penang. (Source)

Surprisingly, another explanation tracks the origins of bubble tea to our own backyard. Cendol, a beloved dessert cum drink in South-East Asia, became popular in British Malaya as it provided respite from the tropical heat. It was a creation of colonialism, as it was influenced by the British habit of adding milk to tea, and also aided by the refrigeration technology and ice that British ships provided. 

While in Singapore and Malaysia, Cendol is served in a bowl, in Thailand and Myanmar, the desert is served in a tall glass. This is where the similarities become uncanny. Coconut milk and gula melaka resemble the milk tea and syrup in bubble teas. Jelly noodles, made from rice flour and pandan extract, provide the same chewy texture that tapioca pearls do. It is thus possible that Taiwanese bubble tea vendors were inspired by Cendol during a trip to South-East Asia.

Even if this theory isn’t true, and it was truly Taiwanese experimentation that led to creation of the drink, there are other connections to South-East Asia. Tapioca, the starch that is used to create the pearls in bubble tea, comes from the roots of Cassava plants. Originally from the faraway lands of Brazil and Mexico, the crop had been distributed by colonisers throughout the tropics in the beginning of the 19th Century. Soon tapioca jelly made its way into recipes like Bubur Cha Cha and into China, paving the way for the creation of bubble tea. 

The First Wave: 1992-2003

Then DPM Lee Hsien Loong and the Canadian Prime Minster trying out Bubble Tea at Far East Square, 1998. (Source)

If you look at history of bubble tea in Singapore, there are three distinct waves of bubble tea culture. The first one began when the drink was first introduced to the country in 1992. 

Bubble Tea Garden in Marina Square was the first entrant to the market and sold hardly-palatable flavours like the Yam Shake, Honey Egg Yolk and Whisky Red Tea. Surprisingly, the store was a hit and others scrambled to join the market. Initially beginning life as sit-down cafes and as bubble tea huts, these shops soon evolved to adopt a takeaway model. This also lowered the barriers of entry into the market as shops only needed to occupy about 200-400sq ft. of space.

The popularity of bubble tea and low costs required to set-up a shop hence led to a mass proliferation of stores across the country – with about 5,000 operating at their peak in 2002. With the increase in the number of stores, also came an increase in competition, with stores using jingles, one-for-one offers, lucky draws and scantily clad models to entice customers. A fierce price war was also being fought, leading prices of bubble tea to drop to less than a dollar in some areas. 

At this point, the bubble finally burst and the market was at full saturation. Many companies had to fold or downsize simply because the competition was too much to handle. The focus on expansion also came at the price of taste and experimentation, meaning that demand had decreased as well. Each-A-Cup’s 51 outlets in 2001 for example, had dwindled to about 15 in 2003. 

The first wave had ended. 

The Second Wave: 2007-2013

After years of relative inactivity, bubble tea was buzzing again in Singapore in the late 2000s.  The entrance of Taiwanese brands like Koi in 2007 and Gong Cha in 2009 had led to long, snaking queues in malls across the nation. This time around, there was a focus on the quality and taste of bubble tea with premium ingredients being sought. 

Unlike the previous mass collapse of bubble tea stores, the second wave resulted in a tapering off of popularity. Health concerns about the chemicals used in the pearls both in 2011 and 2013, also contributed to this decrease in popularity

The Third Wave: 2018-

Interest in bubble tea has seen an exponential rise in recent years. Partially, this is due to the expansion of brands like Tiger SugarThe Alley and Milksha into Singapore. But more fundamentally, the driving force behind this renaissance might be social media. With companies paying close attention to product aesthetics and marketing, consumers have been encouraged to post about the drinks in social media, resulting in a fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) chain reaction. 

Thus, drinking bubble tea isn’t just utilitarian in nature, it could be an expression of identity and might signal a willingness to experiment. It also helps that this round of growth has coincided with the amalgamation of Asian culture into mainstream western consciousness. Groups like Subtle Asian Traits feature copious amounts of memes and stories about the drink. On some level, drinking bubble tea, at least in the west, has become part of the Asian identity, perhaps explaining why it has become so popular. 

So, will this wave last? Some argue it is no different than the ones that came before it – based on fads and trends. At some point, the next big thing will arrive and it will be no longer ‘cool’ to post pictures of your Boba on Instagram. Others take a more optimistic stance, arguing that it is different this time around, especially since it has become part of this generation’s culture. Charlene Chen, a consumer psychologist at Nanyang Technological University says that “culture and identity are things that people care about and will defend when they come under attack.” 

Only time will tell how important this cultural integration is. 

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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