“I deliberately came here today because it’s an independent Taiwan store and it doesn’t support ‘one country, two systems,’ ” said Alex Shuie, who works in financial services, as he waited for his drink — known as bubble or boba or pearl tea — at the Ruguo stand in central Taipei.
“There are so many options, so we can avoid the bad ones and still have lots of places to frequent,” said Shuie, who each week drinks about five cups of bubble tea, characterized by its chewy tapioca balls.
Milk or fruit, hot or cold, bubble tea is a source of cultural pride in Taiwan. When President Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016, an anthropomorphic bubble tea mascot danced at her inauguration. In Los Angeles this year, she visited a Taiwanese bubble tea store to show support for her island’s sweetest export. Domino’s in Taiwan has even launched a pizza topped with tapioca balls.
So when I arrived in Taipei recently to report on the national elections scheduled for next month, I set out to sample the famous drink in its natural habitat.
Walking down narrow streets filled with dumpling stalls and restaurant display cases offering every conceivable part of an animal, local journalist Alicia Ying-yu Chen sized up the tea joints.
“No, no, no, not that one, no, okay,” she said as we walked past outlets like CoCo, 50 Lan and Yifang, before arriving at Ke Bu Ke. This one, she told me, had not pandered to China and was therefore deserving of our custom.
As we joined the throng waiting for drinks — for me, standard milk tea with tapioca pearls, no sugar, half ice — Chen pointed out that the tea outlets we had passed were all empty. They were the ones that have voiced political support for China.
Taiwan and China have been separated politically since 1949, when Mao Zedong and his Communists declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang fled to the island. Ever since, the Communist Party has viewed Taiwan as a renegade province that should be brought into one China under Beijing’s control.
But Taiwan transformed itself into a democracy during the 1990s and now has a vibrant and pluralistic political system. China is always an electoral issue here, but the island has now had two independence-leaning presidents — Tsai is the second — who advocate self-rule.
In this political environment, Taiwanese bubble tea companies, like many Western firms with substantial business interests in China, try to strike a delicate balance.
“This is Taiwan’s national drink, but a lot of bubble tea companies are operating in China,” said Brian Hioe, editor of the liberal New Bloom magazine, over a cup of less politically fraught coffee. “Even the ones that play up their local ingredients know their political concerns are with China.”
The trouble for Taiwanese tea chains intensified this summer after pro-democracy demonstrations flared in Hong Kong, which is supposed to enjoy wide autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework in place since the city’s return to China in 1997. This is the same mechanism Beijing has held out to the Taiwanese, suggesting that the island could also have its own system should it officially become part of China.
But China’s increasingly repressive actions in Hong Kong have led many Taiwanese to view “one country, two systems” as a threat. They say they won’t relinquish their freedoms — not for all the tea in China.
As the protests rolled on, some Hong Kong franchise owners of Taiwanese bubble tea outlets began to subtly voice support for the protesters. A CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice store printed “Add oil, Hongkongers” on its receipts, using the Chinese equivalent of “Go get ’em.” A Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea joint displayed a sign cheering on the protesters.
A firestorm ensued on Chinese social media, with nationalistic netizens calling for Chinese to boycott the chains.
The corporate headquarters of many tea brands rushed to pledge their allegiance to Beijing and its political system. Chinese consumers spent between $5.7 billion and $7.1 billion on bubble tea last year, according to Citic Securities.
Yifang wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, that it “resolutely upholds one country, two systems and resolutely opposes violent strikes,” while CoCo’s headquarters said it “firmly obeys and supports the national laws and policies of China, including that Hong Kong is an integral part of the People’s Republic of China.”
Gong Cha and HeyTea both say they support “one country, two systems” and believe Hong Kong is an inviolable part of China. Others like Dayuanzi, 50 Lan and Tiger Sugar have said that they originate in “Taiwan, China.”
Placating the potential Chinese customer base of 1.4 billion people, however, has alienated many in Taiwan, potential customer base of 25 million.
Three women waiting with Shuie at Ruguo said they had made a conscious choice to patronize the independent store. A young couple waiting for their cups of green bubble tea at 50 Lan, and who thought they were on the right side of the bubble tea war, were dismayed to discover, when Chen and I asked them, that the chain supported the idea that Taiwan was part of China.
Even Tsai, the independence-leaning president running for reelection next month, has had a say.
“If you add politics, [bubble tea] does not taste good,” she said when asked about it on the campaign trail.
Yifang has borne the brunt of the backlash. Thirty of its franchises in Taiwan have closed since August. “Yifang used to be the pride of Taiwan, but now it is a rat crossing the street,” company founder Kei Tzu-kai told the Business Times newspaper last month.
Yifang’s operations “in every region” of Taiwan have been affected, spokeswoman Mavis Lin said, adding that the corporate headquarters had distributed about $1 million in compensation to help franchisees.
But those on the “good” tea list are not necessarily flourishing. Huge sales in October and November mean customers have less disposable income this month, said Mike Yang, owner of the Ruguo bubble tea shop, while the earlier-than-usual Lunar New Year next month has compelled many people to be more frugal ahead of the celebration.
“The instability and uncertainty from Hong Kong has affected many Taiwanese businesses in China and how many people spend their money,” Yang said.
And, for this reporter at least, sometimes pragmatism wins out.
One night, after working until 10 p.m. and realizing that all the restaurants around my hotel were closed, I had bubble tea for dinner. I ordered milk tea with both tapioca pearls and chunks of grass jelly.
Don’t ask me what chain it came from. I was hungry, and I went to the first one I found.