Bubble tea

by Yap, Jan

Bubble tea is a beverage originating from Taiwan comprising tea with fruit syrup or milk added, and then shaken. Tapioca balls or “pearls” are often added to the concoction as well. This beverage has undergone a few waves of popularity in Singapore.

Bubble tea is made by adding fruit syrup or milk to (usually cold) tea and then shaking the concoction. Chewy tapioca balls or “pearls” are often added as well, giving rise to the need for extra large straws when drinking the beverage. The “bubble” originally referred to the froth created by shaking the drink, though now it is also understood as referring to the pearls that are added. A wide variety of teas, including black, green, oolong and earl grey tea are sold. One can order the teas plain, or with milk or various fruit extracts, including plum, lemon and passion fruit among other flavours. In some instances, a hot version of the tea is also available. There is also a wide selection of items that can be added to the tea; for instance, pearls, pudding and jelly. Customers also have the option of adjusting the drink’s sugar level. Moreover, apart from teas for sale, there are plenty of fruit juices and sometimes coffee options on the menu of bubble tea shops. These drinks are mixed only after an order has been made and are then machine-sealed in a clear plastic cup.1

Bubble tea originates from Taichung, Taiwan. Liu Han-Chieh, owner of tea house Chun Shui Tang, claims to have invented the beverage in 1983 after being inspired by seeing coffee served cold in Japan. Previously, tea was usually served hot, so it was considered a novel idea to cool the tea with ice and mix it with various ingredients. In 1987, a staff member had the idea of adding fen yuan (sweetened tapioca pudding) to her tea, resulting in the creation of the bubble tea pearl.2

Introduction in Singapore
Bubble tea was introduced to Singapore in 1992. The first bubble tea shop was Bubble Tea Garden in Marina Square, owned by Ann Chew. At this point in time, bubble tea was served in a cocktail glass,3 and customers drank the beverage sitting down in cafes or “bubble tea huts”.4 Bubble Tea Garden, in particular, served flavours such as Pearl Red Bubble Tea, Yam Shake, Honey Egg Yolk, Whisky Red Tea and Honey Peppermint.5 It attracted many students, largely Chinese-speaking and who came in groups, partly because it had a message board for customers to express their thoughts and communicate with one another.6

Food fad
Although bubble tea was well received, notably among the youth, when it was first introduced, it was only in 2001 that it became phenomenally popular. Long queues at bubble tea shops, now serving only takeaway bubble tea, were a common sight. The number of bubble tea shops grew to at least 5,000 by 2002. Hawker centres too began to sell bubble tea, with some small start-ups even operating from shops selling items such as cakes and shoes. The peak of the fad was from March to October 2001, when shops reportedly sold as many as 800 to 1,000 cups a day.7 Major chains included Cool Station, Quickly and Milk Girl Ice Cup.8

However, the drink’s popularity also contributed to its downfall. The increase in bubble tea shops led to intense competition and price wars.9 Slashed prices, one-for-one offers and even lucky draw promotions were used to entice customers. Moreover, the emergence of do-it-yourself kits and classes allowed people to make their own bubble tea.10 As with other food fads, the novelty of the drink quickly wore off. As a result, bubble tea had lost its popularity by 2003 and many shops folded.

Nevertheless, bubble tea did not completely disappeared from Singapore’s food scene. The beverage has experienced a few resurgences in popularity, such as in 2007 and 2011.11 There were more than 10 chains and 500 outlets selling bubble tea in 2011. Currently, the major bubble tea chains are Koi and Gong Cha. Prices are higher than previously, reaching as much as S$6 per cup as compared to S$3 in the past.12 Nevertheless, bubble tea shops have attempted to sustain the popularity of the drink by continually developing new and unusual flavours, as well as engaging with customers through social media.

Health concerns
In May 2011, it was found that two fruit juice brands from Taiwan used by some bubble tea outlets contained plasticisers that were harmful to health. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) suspended the brands, resulting in a few bubble tea chains temporarily being unable to sell their fruit teas.13

In May 2013, it was discovered that the Sunright brand of tapioca balls, as well as other starch products from Taiwan used in bubble tea, contained maleic acid, a substance harmful to the kidneys.14 As a result, some bubble tea chains stopped selling pearls with their teas for the time being.15 Such health scares negatively affected bubble tea sales, although customer confidence returned after a period of time.

Bubble Tea Garden, Singapore’s first bubble tea café, opens.

2001: Bubble tea reaches the height of its popularity.
2007: Renewed popularity of bubble tea.
2011: Renewed popularity of bubble tea. Plasticisers are discovered in two Taiwanese fruit juice brands, resulting in suspension of the brands.
2013: Maleic acid found in Taiwanese starch products, affecting the pearl supplies of certain bubble tea chains.

Jan Yap

1. New ‘bubbly’ a hit with youth here. (1992, May 27). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Chun Shui Tang. Retrieved from http://chunshuitang.com.tw/
3. New ‘bubbly’ a hit with youth here. (1992, May 27). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Ho, M., & Boey, D. (2001, June 29). Junction. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Another draw is the foamed tea. (1993, September 24). The Straits Times, p. 73. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Ho, S. B. (1993, September 24). Teens use tea house notice board to talk to each other. The Straits Times, p. 73. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Arlina Arshad. (2002, January 13). Bubbling over. The Straits Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Ho, M., & Boey, D. (2001, June 29). Junction. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Arlina Arshad. (2001, August 31). Storm in a bubble-tea cup. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Arlina Arshad. (2002, January 13). Bubbling over. The Straits Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Lek, E. (2007, August 20). Bubbly and book fun. The Straits Times, p. 78. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Low, F., & Lee, H. M. (2011, March 27). Bubble tea fad makes comeback. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Durai, J., & Poon, C. H. (2011, June 4). AVA suspends two more Taiwanese juice brands. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Hoe, P. S. (2013, May 27). Unapproved additive found in 11 food products. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Chan, H. J., & Lee, D. (2013, May 28). ‘Pearls’ dropped by some bubble tea shops. The Straits Times, pp. 2-3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

The information in this article is valid as at 28 January 2014 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Ethnic foods
Heritage and Culture