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My Cup of Bubble Tea

How the sweet drinks and steamy cafés swept Vancouver and became cultural touchstones for a generation.

Christopher Cheung 2 Mar 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

We rode up to the watering holes of our teenage years in Civics and Corollas borrowed from our parents, six or seven of us crammed into a car built for five. It was a thrill to zip down King Edward or Alexandra Road on a late night past steamed windows aglow in tiny shops toiling to serve their packed congregations bubble tea.

These mom-and-pops knew exactly where to set their thirst traps: on Vancouver’s west side, for homesick Taiwanese kids whose families were lured by realtors to purchase homes near high-ranking schools, and in the plazas of north Richmond to capture to the parched masses exiting karaoke lounges and Chinese badminton gyms.

I savoured the atmosphere as much as I did milk teas, strawberry slushes and chilled, yogurty Yakults. I loved the long lines and crowded tables, not minding if I had to sip standing against a wall if all the seats were taken. For my friends who liked quiet cafés, the shops were too much of a sauna, filled with teenage bodies and steam from honeyed tapioca boiling in the kitchen. For me, it was sweet communion.

The first cup of bubble tea was served in Vancouver around the time I was born. Sometime in the early 1990s the beverage surfaced in humble food courts like Richmond Public Market and quiet neighbourhoods like Marpole. More bubbled up elsewhere in the 2000s, but it was in 2015 that the market really ballooned, and now there are 300 shops across the region. Downtown has twice as many bubble tea shops as Starbucks. Kingsway, with over 30, has become a bubble boulevard: a new condo building has three on its main floor alone, and the Crystal Mall shopping centre boasts 10. On hot summer evenings, lineups for bubble tea are as long as those for ice cream.

Still, I’ve had a hard time conveying the drink to the uninitiated. It doesn’t help that the English name is an obstacle. How do I explain that having “bubble tea” includes drinks like juice or coffee with no tea in them? How do I explain that the eponymous “bubbles” aren’t a requirement? Americans call it “boba,” a name that sounds cute and vague enough to be all-encompassing but has trouble of its own: it’s Chinese slang for “big breasts.” Perhaps dubbed by a provocative entrepreneur for sex appeal?

I’ve sought it out in Asian North American communities on the edges of Toronto, Houston and New York, and overseas in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and, of course, Taiwan, bubble tea’s birthplace, where I vacuumed cups of it daily.

Like all origin stories, bubble tea’s is a bit messy. The two companies that claim they came up with the concept in the late 1980s, Hanlin and Chun Shui Tang, eventually took their dispute to court. But because neither patented the beverage, it was left to the world to brew. As a result, I’ve found it easily on my travels, whether sipping coconut milk with purple rice on the streets of Shanghai or a lemon slushie with lemon jelly in the basement of a mall in Queens.

Bubble tea and I came of age together in Vancouver and, as someone who’s followed it around the world, I feel I can offer an explanation for why it become such a big deal here, and what it’s said about the transformation of our city.

I was eight in 2001 when my Aunt Flora gave me a mango slush with pearls that tasted like diluted fruit pulp from a can. I wasn’t immediately hooked.

The following summer, though, my mother took us to a multicultural block on Cambie Street where, beside Omnitsky’s Jewish deli and the Vietnamese-run Samurai Sushi, was Yuen Yuen Café, a Taiwanese hole-in-the-wall. There, I had a red bean smoothie — sweet and silky, lightly earthy — and the love affair began. The three of us took turns sipping until the gasping straw announced the experience was over.

From then on, I sought bubble tea out whenever I could. Finding the good stuff then was a gamble, because everyone from Hong Kong snack bars to pho restaurants knew we wanted it, and kept packets of raw pearls and colourful, artificial drink mixes behind the counter in case there was a customer to be had.

It was a magical thing when we found places that did it right, often Taiwanese restaurants that put as much care into their drinks as they did their homey cooking. There were teas like assam, jasmine, oolong, matcha; fresh fare like jackfruit, kumquat, blueberry, watermelon; toppings like flan, coconut jelly, mango stars and rare tapioca noodles. It was exciting for my friends and I to taste flavours we knew from traditional cuisine, like tofu and taro, but shaken up in a modern way. Others clearly agreed: they were noisy, busy places at peak hours, with staff furiously operating multiple blenders and strapping containers of tea into machines that shook them violently like robotic bartenders.

Like pubs with names like Crow & Gate or Wolf & Hound, bubble tea shops also seemed to follow a naming pattern, with cheery establishments like Flo, Bubble World, Pearl Castle, Dragon Ball and Zephyr in the Sky. All had their own quirks. The sleek Cabin 5555 in Kerrisdale was aviation themed. Beefy Beef Noodle had the novelty of its name. The True’s Tea in Richmond had live music, with wannabes crooning Mandopop ballads. Smaller ones like L&G had packs of cards for entertainment, sticky from being handled by so many hands clutching sweet drinks.

We’d run into classmates on dates and in study groups, and even the dragon boat teams with their paddles, smelling like False Creek after their practice. Whether you had a graphing calculator or a sports bag in one hand, you’d have a bubble tea in the other.

For Canadian-borns like me, bubble tea shops were also culturally refreshing, existing outside of the white mainstream and the kitschy Chinatowns that gave us the impression that we came from some ancient civilization. An Asian American writer in Eater has even referred to bubble tea shops as her “Rosetta Stone.”

They were our tin-can phone line to contemporary Asia, a cultural education we couldn’t get from our classrooms: on the screens were the latest music videos, on the shelves were the latest manga and on the walls were posters of superstars like Jay Chou on their Canadian tour stops, alongside ads for local tutors and churches for newcomers.

There was a time when coffee, far older than bubble tea, played a similar role. In Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World, writer Michael Pollan compares coffee houses to the internet, identifying them as a brick-and-mortar medium that drew disparate people from different classes and backgrounds together in a room via caffeine. They became popular first in the Islamic world before appearing in Venice in 1629, and then spreading through Europe, filled with chatter on the political, financial and cultural matters of the day.

For us, bubble tea shops offered a multilingual social space where we children of immigrants rubbed shoulders with young astronaut kids. Even in a diverse city, some of my high school friends in the English as a Second Language programs endured being called “fresh off the boat” for how they spoke, with some of the guys receiving giggles for their long-banged hairstyles. At the bubble tea shop, all that vanished. No one cared what they spoke or how they spoke it; their hair was the hair of the popstars whose songs played on the shop speakers.

Sociologists call places like these “third places” — social spots between home and work or school, like libraries, churches, parks, and watering holes that make space for cultural connection. We didn’t have to be Taiwanese to enjoy bubble tea or Korean to enjoy the K-pop — for us westernized Canadian-borns, it was nice to blend in and have culture in a cup to hang on to.

As late as 2017, the New York Times was describing bubble tea as an “exotic” thing from the “Far East,” calling the toppings “blobs” and the drink “strange and alien.” After receiving blowback, the paper issued an apology for spurring “unpleasant feelings of being the kid in a non-diverse neighbourhood bringing ‘weird’ lunches to school.”

Closer to home, just last year, B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson weighed in on bubble tea over Twitter. “Gag reflex,” she wrote in response to a tweet questioning how bubble tea shops might handle a looming plastic straw ban.

Still, I never could have imagined how a drink that seemed like a secret we Asian Canadian kids enjoyed would eventually grow up.

In 2015, my beloved Yuen Yuen Café closed. The storefront was taken over by a BC Liberal campaign headquarters, then a condo showroom, then a marijuana dispensary and is now waiting to be demolished — a death process that couldn’t be more Vancouver.

On the heels of its departure that year was the bubble tea boom. A young restauranteur from China once told me the winds of commerce are changing: where the West might once have exported brands like McDonald’s, brands are now increasingly being imported from the East. Franchises like Xing Fu Tang have gone the theatrical route, with pearls cooked in fiery woks, while some like Sun Tea look like something out of a Wes Anderson film, with bobaristas in berets and denim aprons crafting delicate drinks like cocktails. As a port on the edge of the Pacific, it’s no surprise, really, that Vancouver has become a suburb of Asian cities with cultural comforts.

Bubble tea’s mainstreaming has led me to see downtown office crowds stop for an afternoon boba instead of a coffee, students sip them on the SkyTrain as a snack, smokers in alleys slurp juice and jellies from their straws between puffs and even hip, health-conscious West Coasters enjoy avocado smoothies with pearls. Like sushi and pasta, North American imports that tastemakers once thought of as gross, bubble tea now has a place among our plurality of cuisines.

It’s inevitable that wherever food goes, it gathers new meaning and flavours. After all, tapioca pearls come from the cassava plant, which is South American in origin but has long since been adopted as part of Taiwanese culinary heritage.

In Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar, pro-democracy activists have recently used bubble tea as a political tool in a stand against China’s nationalists, uniting in a “Milk Tea Alliance” and using their variations of the drink as a symbol of shared solidarity.

In overseas Asian communities like Vancouver though, bubble tea has become associated with belonging. Last month, Jiayang Fan of the New Yorker explored the drink’s history in the U.S. and shared how she and her Americanized Asian classmates in college clung to the drink as a cultural touchstone. While Fan acknowledges critiques of bubble tea as an “all sugar, no substance” symbol of Asian-ness — just one small part of daily life in diasporas, which involves navigating symbols at every turn to find belonging — she also admits being a bubble tea fanatic herself, consuming so much of it during a food diary for New York’s Grub Street that her editors cut several mentions of it.

Fan mentions seeking out boba when her life is most out of control, and I’m the same, though it’s the fellowship I find in its shops that’s the real craving. I still drink it, of course, but with the pandemic, I now dash out of the store as soon as my order is ready so that I can sanitize my cup and straw.

Last fall, I was invited to a wedding, one of the last of its size before the province clamped down on gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19. At the end of the ceremony, a friend of the groom carried in a large box of bubble tea for the 50 guests. It came from a shop called Teapressu, which the newlyweds enjoyed when they were dating. The pops of straws piercing each cup’s plastic seal were followed by an almost holy silence as the wedding guests lifted their masks to take a sip. As I clutched my matcha red bean latte in the half-empty banquet hall amongst the distanced crowd, I drank it slowly, savouring the feeling of being together.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food

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