Bubble tea: A Taiwanese sip that evolved into a global sensation

Have you ever tried bubble tea — a beverage that seems to have endless possibilities? Do you know that the original bubble tea actually had no “pearls” in it but only, well, bubbles — or, foam, to be more accurate?

The inception of bubble tea

Tea’s history in Taiwan can be traced back to the 18th century.  Traditionally, tea is enjoyed warm, involving multiple tools and equipment — and is hence referred to as “old men’s tea” (老人茶), meaning only the elderly would have the time for a cup of tea made this way.  Bubble tea, on the other hand, breathed a new life into Taiwan’s tea traditions and changed the tea landscape forever.  The story of its genesis, however, remains an unsettled case buried in time.

It is widely believed that bubble tea was born in Taichung, in the middle part of Taiwan, at a teahouse named Chun Shui Tang (春水堂). As the story goes, its founder, Liu Han-Chieh, got his inspiration from seeing a barista making iced coffee with a shaker during a visit to Japan. A few years later, in 1983, when Liu opened his own teashop, he started selling this hand-shaken iced tea — made with black tea, syrup, and ice only. This beverage, topped with delicate frothy bubbles from the shaking process, was indeed the original bubble tea. Liu further encouraged his staff to brainstorm on what could go into the tea.  It was Lin Hsiu Hui, a manager of Chun Shui Tang, who came up with the first glass of pearl milk tea by adding tapioca balls to the drink.  Viola!  A new trend was started.

The other prevailing birth story suggests, however, that the original bubble tea was created in the southern city of Tainan by a mixologist named Chang Fan Shu, pushing its birth date as early as the 1940s.  Chang, a former employee at a local izakaya in the Japanese Rule era, applied his drink-blending skills to black tea-making and there was born the foamy iced beverage that soon became popular. It was not until decades later, in 1986, that someone thought of incorporating those little chewy pearls into the beverage, taking it to another level. The man who claimed to have invented the pearl milk tea was Tu Tsong-He, owner of the Hanlin Tea Room (翰林茶館). Seeking a way to “increase the value of his drink,” Tu experimented with pairing his tea with the white tapioca pearls he came across in a local market — there goes the Tainan version of a birth story to the beloved beverage.

Now, which story do you like the best? In 2019, after a 10-year-long lawsuit between Chun Shui Tang and the Hanlin Tea Room, the court finally ruled that it was “irrelevant” to argue over who invented the beverage “because bubble tea [was] not a patented product.” Lin (from Chun Shui Tang) admitted in an interview that they “weren’t thinking of patents” at the time; Tu, on the other hand, commented that it was a “battle for truth” and that consumers could be the judge. As dissatisfying to the stakeholders as it may be, this ruling possibly contributed to the quick spreading of bubble tea across the island — because anyone gets to make the drink now.

From a novelty drink to a symbol of identity

In the 1990s, bubble tea gradually found its way overseas, from neighboring Asian countries to other parts of the world. Its highly customizable nature not only lends itself to creativity but allows room for adaptation to meet the tastes of its audience worldwide. Once a novelty drink, bubble tea has come to be a staple in Australia.  In Singapore, people have also grown so fond of bubble tea that it starts to bear sentimental values in their lives. On normal days, it serves as a social experience where people get to express themselves and connect with one another; in times of crisis, it doubles as a comfort food, providing a sense of control through challenging moments.

While the Taiwanese diaspora finds a temporary home through bubble tea to ease their nostalgia, bubble tea is finding itself a place in the presidential banquet of Lai Ching-te— not the first time it has served as a culinary ambassador for Taiwan. As Taiwanese would go so far as to embrace bubble tea as a symbol of their identity, it shouldn’t be that hard to understand why open statements made by Taiwanese tea chains in support of China’s “One Country, Two Systems” claim were met with such outrage.

But, for now, shall we take Tsai’s advice to leave politics out of the picture to just have bubble tea to our likes?  In the meantime, let’s cheer for the creative energy and innovative spirit that has brought it into our lives, making it a cultural phenomenon that we can all bond over.

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