Hong Kong Gen Z, Part II: How We Made Bubble Tea Our Own

This article is the second in a series about Hong Kong’s Generation Z. Born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, this generation accounts for 1.6 million people or 22 percent of the population. In this series researched and written by Gen Z writers, Zolima looks at how this generation is coming of age.

Ask a young Hongkonger about some of their best school memories and there is bound to be something related to bubble tea. After all, you’d be hard-pressed not to encounter youngsters clutching a drink on the street in some of the most popular areas in town like Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui or Causeway Bay. “We’d head out as a class to grab drinks during study breaks,” says Sarah, a university student speaking fondly of her high school days. “It was the perfect sugary pick-me-up to keep us going when we were exhausted.”

Hong Kong is certainly not alone in its love for bubble tea. In the 1990s, Asia was swept up in the giant tide of bubble-mania as Singapore, Malaysia and mainland China picked up on the trend. Today, business is bubbling up all over the world. In 2016, North America accounted for more than 57 percent of the global bubble tea market, which is projected to reach US$3.21 billion in value by 2023, a growth of 70 percent over 2016. Bubble tea represents the culture of the Chinese and Taiwanese diaspora in North America, most notably in Los Angeles, which received a large influx of Taiwanese migrants in the 1990s and thus enjoys a high concentration of bubble tea shops. While the meaning of bubble tea to these communities have been amply probed in the media, the Taiwanese history of bubble tea receives much less attention.

Milksha shares a short stretch of street with three other bubble tea shops – Photo by Jocelyn Tsang for Zolima CityMag

Bubble tea was first created in Taiwan in the 1980s and quickly became a popular street food item. The exact creator of the drink is unknown; Chun Shui Tang and Han Lin, both famous Taiwanese bubble tea shops, engaged in a 10 year legal feud over their respective claims to have invented the drinks. The legal battle ended last year in a draw: neither one was conclusively established as the progenitor. 

Either way, the famous concoction of tea and tapioca balls marks a modern twist on traditional Taiwanese flavours. Tea houses have always been where people socialised, like British pubs, while tapioca balls would be served in sweet soup as a dessert. But one thing that isn’t Taiwanese is the name. Surprisingly, its common nickname—boba—was inspired by buxom Hong Kong actress Amy Yip, nicknamed bo1 baa3 波霸 in Chinese, which translates to “champion of breasts.” Eventually, the somewhat lewd name fell out of fashion in Taiwan, replaced by the less suggestive bubble tea, although boba is still the most common moniker in California. 

Hong Kong’s own bubble tea culture has also come a long way. The city got its first sip of the drink when St. Alp’s Tea House, a Taiwanese restaurant and drinks shop founded by Hongkongers, was born in 1994. Today, though, most bubble sea is sold out of streetside stalls, the first wave of which opened in 2006 with the arrival of Gong Cha from Taiwan and Happy Lemon from Shanghai. They were widely successful, kicking off Hong Kong’s first real frenzy around bubble tea. 

Both are still quietly chugging along today, but they have been eclipsed by newer, flashier entrants. Today’s market is extremely competitive. “There must be at least 100 different bubble tea brands and 1,000 shops in Hong Kong,” says Cyrus Lam, Hong Kong’s master franchisee for Milksha, a brand from Tainan. The provision of a dizzying range of options seems to be a defining characteristic of the bubble tea industry. Milksha’s Causeway Bay outlet offers a whopping 32 items, for example. Most drinks can be further customised, with options to control the amount of ice, sugar and additional toppings, the last item for a small fee. Strolling down the short stretch of street, which Milksha shares with three other bubble tea shops, it is clear that variety is the norm. “We’re more like general drinks shops. There’s something for everyone,” says Lam. 

The boba bubble was growing at a steady pace until 2018, when brand after brand of overseas bubble tea shops began opening in Hong Kong, bringing their signature drinks into vogue in the local market. Tiger Sugar riffs on different flavours infused with black sugar, Yi Fang focused on fruit tea, and Heytea introduced cheese tea: milk tea or plain tea topped with a thick, whipped cheese foam. The distinctive items offered by these chains soon found themselves on the menus of many locally-based shops. “We need to be responsive to trends – that’s what people want,” says Jan Tsang, co-founder of Aboutea, a bubble tea shop founded in Hong Kong. “That was the only way to compete with the larger, more famous brands when we started back in 2018.”

At the time, there were at least 150 different bubble tea brands around the city. Lam suspects the explosion of brands had to do with Tenren—a Taiwanese tea house which has more than 60 bubble tea shops in Hong Kong—getting publicly listed on the Hong Kong stock market in 2017. “The public listing showed how large Hong Kong’s market for bubble tea was, leading many people to see franchising Taiwanese bubble tea brands to Hong Kong as a lucrative business,” he says. 

For the most part, new entrants reaped great rewards – the most high-profile shops were greeted by snaking, endless queues of Hongkongers sweating and fanning themselves in the summer heat, waiting for their drinks. Some of those queues lasted hours: three for Heytea, five for Tiger Sugar. They were evidently generated by trends and novelty; each new entrant in the bubble tea market was preceded by a great deal of buzz in local media, and as each of them arrived, the hype would be elevated by Instagram feeds awash with photos of the same drink, the lucky consumer triumphantly holding their cup aloft.

Today, those queues have dissipated. Despite bubble tea’s continued popularity, the industry has ceased to be a cash cow. “It would be pretty hard for new entrants to survive, because the market is more than saturated at present,” says Lam. “More and more will continue to close down; only the strong will survive.”

Along the stretch of Dundas Street behind Kwong Wah Hospital, there are eight different brands of bubble tea shops within a two minute walk. Talking to customers, it was not immediately evident that they had much brand loyalty. “I don’t have a preference for any brand,” says a woman named Ah Sum as she waits for her drink from KOI, nervously giggling and glancing at her friends. At the neighbouring Xing Fu Tang, a man named Mr. Wong waits for his sugar fix. “I can’t really explain why I like bubble tea, I just do,” he says, sporting a confused expression above his mask. “I also only chose Xing Fu Tang over KOI because I passed by it first.”

As widespread as bubble tea is in Hong Kong, it is still not as pervasive as in Taiwan, where people from all walks of life consume it every day. Here, it is still more associated with youth, which is perhaps why bubble tea shops found themselves on the front lines of the political divide that tore the city apart in the second half of 2019. Many bubble tea shops boasted clear allegiances with one side or another. For young people who felt they had no outlet to express themselves, purchasing bubble tea from a brand with a certain political stance became a convenient way to signal their beliefs. Many shops are independent, rather than chains, which meant their owners did not face any corporate pressure to stay out of politics. Some shops even sold politically-themed merchandise and hosted Lennon Walls where customers could express themselves through colourful sticky notes. 

Those displays have disappeared since the National Security Law was enacted in July. For many, Hong Kong’s political upheaval remains a painful wound, one that has been widened by the Covid-19 pandemic. But the thirst for bubble tea remains. “We’re all been through a lot this year, so people crave familiarity and comfort, and they find that in bubble tea,” says Tsang. 

In the swampy humidity of a post-typhoon Wednesday, Milksha in Causeway Bay rolls open their metal gate at 3pm and welcomes five customers within the first minute of business. That rapidly blossoms into a small crowd of ten, who mill around the shop, waiting for their drinks. Not fear of the pandemic, nor limits on outdoor activity, nor even the weather can thwart Hong Kong’s love for this Taiwanese drink – it’s clear that we’ve made it our very own. Bubble tea’s popularity is not going to burst any time soon.

Milksha green bubble tea (slider) – Photo courtesy of Milksha

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