It takes a pandemic and a lockdown to show us how mad we are about bubble milk tea
In front of the wildly popular Chicha San Chen milk tea stall
It’s a week since the (partial) lock down, known here euphemistically as “Circuit Breaker measures”, and yet many people are still out in visibly large numbers to queue and purchase their essentials. What is considered absolutely necessary, of course, needs a redefinition, post COVID-19. A day before all non-essential services and stores were to close (on 7 March), alert retail staff at Takashimaya Shopping Centre spotted and shared on social media photographs of the queue outside Chanel, with one recipient of the notice describing the line as “staggering”. Clearly, Chanel, to quite a few with the means, is essential. Nearer to where the rest of us live, essentials were facial (tissue) masks, at-home hair colour, and for one customer at a Bobbi Brown store, “Eye Opening Mascara”.
Even in the category of food—doubtlessly essential—or groceries, some are more essential that others. What is in your basket may be more essential than what is in ours. Based from what we have seen, essentials appear to be all pasta (even uncommon ones such as bucatini, we’re sure) and bottled sauce to go with them, ice cream (Magnum!), Yakult, yoghurt, prawn crackers (especially Calbee’s—without fancy flavours such as Grilled Squid Seaweed). Outside supermarkets, now the place to shop, essentials are, of course, milk teas, specifically bubble (or boba) milk teas (珍珠奶茶), rather than teh C peng. And one of them stood out for their persistent long lines and a warning from the authorities: Chicha San Chen (吃茶三千). A lockdown can indeed reveal deep devotions.
Same Chicha San Chen stall, a day after social distancing was mandatory from 27 March
SOTD contributor Mao Shan Wang was at the basement of Tampines One to visit Cold Storage when she saw what she thought was “the response to a shop giving something away for free”. She recalled, “I was shocked. What was going on? Officially, social distancing had just started, but I was certain this looked like people queuing to get the latest iPhone. But it turned out they were in line to buy Chicha San Chen. I had to ask to be excused before they would let me through.” This outlet (and another at Jem) was later issued with an “advisory letter” for non-compliance with social distancing measures. Some observers feel that those in line should be served the same missive. In one case, a mere letter wasn’t apparently enough—another Taiwanese chain Playmade was fined S$1,000 for “failing to enforce the safe distancing measures properly, despite repeated warnings”. Even that and the risk of punishment meted out to customers as well would not dent the incomprehensible popularity of bubble milk tea.
The thing about bubble milk tea is that it is not the least novel, compared to one particular coronavirus now causing worldwide distress and global economies to plunge. Taiwan-born milk tea with the tapioca ‘pearls’, as we know it, first appeared on our shores in 1992. However, it was not until 2001 when we started seeing people in substantial numbers drinking them to constitute a trend. But its eventual popularity was short-lived. By 2003, bubble milk tea became a mere memory, prompting food trend chasers to call it “the first phase” of the fashion that drinking milky tea with tapioca pearls became. Although old-timers such as Each-A-Cup preserved, it would take “big” Taiwanese brands to capture the taste of a new gen of tea drinkers and the memory of those who still pined for their zhenzhu naicha.
Always get your priorities right: Bubble milk tea before groceryDespite the enhanced social distancing measures, some still can’t resist enjoying bubble milk tea in public, while seated at closed food shops
In 2007, bubble milk tea returned slowly and modestly, with Koi, being one of the earliest entrants of the second phase, followed by Gong Cha two years later. These two brands would dominate the business until other players started appearing in the last two years, including The Alley and Xing Fu Tang, culminating in the most upmarket-looking Chicha San Chen. It’s hard to account for Chicha San Chen’s astonishing popularity, evidenced by the inevitable long lines in front of their stores. Even The Alley is no longer seeing such queues (in Bangkok, where it started ahead of Singapore, snaking lines were no longer seen last year). Some say they love the presentation (unnecessarily fancy and a waste of packaging material, if you ask us), while others love the taste of their teas, but all Taiwanese milk teas tend to be thin, and pale—in terms of taste and colour—to those of other origins, such as Hong Kong’s laicha, Thailand’s cha nom yen, or even our own trusty standbys teh tarik and teh C peng.
Bubble tea shops are practically everywhere now, with some HDB town centres dotted with as many as a dozen outlets in amazing close proximity. Could this explain why they are so essential? Have bubble milk tea shops become the heartbeat of heartland refreshment, so much so that people gravitate towards them when craving strikes and social distancing becomes unimportant? The lines at some of the bubble milk tea shops makes the queue at McDonald’s look like a caterpillar, rather than the proverbial snake. On the last day of school last week, kids in uniform were crammed into small bubble milk tea shops that there were in clear contradiction of what the authorities have said—that the youngsters are well taught in school about safe social distancing. Among many of the young, working adults included, going out for bubble tea is a good enough excuse for friends to meet, lovers to date, and bored kids to have some me time away from their parents. Although we are not quite a nation of tea drinkers like the British or mainland Chinese, it is possible that bubble milk tea, at least, has become entrenched in our way of life.
View from the top at TWG Tea Garden at Marina Bay Sands before Circuit Breaker days. File photo: Zhao Xiangji
Tea is appealing not only as an affordable, multifarious beverage, but as a status-affirming brew too, drawing those with a penchant for the finer things to settings of considerable fineness. In mid-March, when social distancing was just becoming a buzzword, The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands was ghostly quiet, except for a murmur emerging somewhere from the lowest floor. If you followed the sound, you would have come to an atrium. At the bottom, in a semi-circular spread, was a busy TWG Tea Garden, giving you an idea what tea with the suffix ‘-porn’ might look like. It was the only place with people. In fact, this was not unlike bubble milk tea establishments of the late ’90s, only less posh: sit-down affairs, and known—those old enough would surely remember—as bubble tea huts. These days, bubble teas are mainly for taking away, which may explain why their business have not suffered tragically in these Circuit Breaker days.
The queue alone (sometimes blocked by the waiting food delivery guys) is enough for anyone to guess that, when the normalcy of life returns, most of these businesses would not need economic aid. Conversely, coffee sellers are in visibly dire straits. According to one Starbucks staffer at an always packed branch, their biz has dropped by “70 percent”, which makes coffee the less appreciated beverage during a health crisis. Could it be because cappuccino and co are best enjoyed in a café, in the presence of company? Bubble tea’s mainly take-away model has served the business well, to the point that long queues during a lockdown isn’t deterring thirsty customers. Such a lure the likes of Chicha San Chen is that when the authorities announced recently that some essential services would be removed in the middle of the Circuit Breaker restrictions, social media was buzzing with the fear that bubble milk tea shops would be one of them. A chance to fix the addiction then? Allow us one leap of imagination.
Update (21 April 2020, 8.30pm): News have been trickling in, announcing that bubble tea shops will no longer be considered essential and will have to cease operations from a minute to midnight
Photos: (except indicated) Mao Shan Wang