Commentary: The curious case of Singapore’s devotion to bubble tea
Restrictions on dining-in hit drink stalls in hawker centres and food courts hard but bubble tea joints continue to enjoy roaring success, says food writer Zat Astha.
SINGAPORE: To some, bubble tea is more than just milk-based tea drinks with black tapioca pearls resting at the bottom.
It is a personality, a lifestyle even for many Singaporeans, as evidenced by the unending queues of customers and food delivery riders at bubble tea shops I observed at heartland shopping malls.
Even in a time when many F&B businesses were forced to shutter due to dwindling sales, construction hoardings anticipating the opening of yet another bubble tea joint have become a familiar sight.
The devotion to bubble tea is so fanatical that in 2020, at the cusp of the circuit breaker, an argument broke out between a food rider and store employees about a hold-up in orders. Bubble tea fans were so desperate for one last fix that the store in question received 150 orders for 600 cups within its last hour before closing.
Looking back, it’s all a rather bemusing situation, but one that’s entirely congruent with our manic obsession with food trends – think croissants, Pao Fan, doughnuts and castella cakes.
When it comes to queuing for food, we mean business. And when it comes to bubble tea, our love for it endures – come what may, global pandemic included.
AN EASY COMPROMISE
Interestingly, we don't see the same level of obsession directed towards the good old cup of kopi or teh from our hawker centres, food courts and coffee shops.
In Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), while bubble tea joints continue to enjoy roaring business, other beverage stalls offering similar products at half the price suffer under the burden of a ban on dining-in.
For some, bubble tea is an easy compromise between the seriousness of coffee drinks sold at boutique joints and the more familiar options of heritage drinks sold at hawker centres.
The former requires specific knowledge to discern between a flat white and a latte, while the latter is a largely unfamiliar option for younger consumers who were raised on a diet of bubble tea as part of an approachable and accessible after-school treat.
And then there's bubble tea’s unending, rich and diverse customisation options that serve consumers’ psychological desire for identity.
In a post on LinkedIn, Josh Allsopp, former design and innovation consultant at Plan in London, shared that “customising for identity serves the need for expression and meaning, whereas customising for function focuses on the usability and performance of a product”.
Putting Allsopp’s theory into practice, ordering that cup of bubble tea with less ice, 25 per cent sugar and aloe vera topping both asserts your personality and offers you a beverage that you enjoy.
Getting something tailored exactly to your liking makes you feel more in control, which in turn increases the likelihood of repeat patronage.
THE LANGUAGE OF A COMMUNITY
In a 2018 piece on Eater, writer Jenny G Zhang asserts bubble tea’s role as a visible identifier amongst Asian-Americans in the US. As an icon of mainstream Asian culture, drinking bubble tea can foster a sense of belonging within the community.
In Singapore, bubble tea serves more to evoke camaraderie and kinship in spaces such as the workplace. In offices, much like in secondary school, having a tribe to call your own allows you to stay engaged and bring your most authentic self to work.
This is where bubble tea can come in. The lexicon of bubble tea orders is a rallying point for fans, setting them apart from a sea of individuals. Terms such as sugar level, toppings and less ice are a unique language that binds bubble tea drinkers as a fraternity.
Bubble tea drinkers thus gravitate to each other at the office, just as smokers who go for smoke breaks together do. Except in this instance, the question of “You want to go for a smoke?” becomes “I’m going down to buy bubble tea. Do you want one?”.
I remember the first time I visited a bubble tea shop at Marine Parade, back in 2007 when the market was saturated with shops like Each-a-Cup that sells affordable blended drinks drenched in flavoured syrup.
While walking around after lunch, I was drawn to a new shop, Koi, that sells variations of a drink called bubble tea. Back then, the term ‘bubble tea’ referred mainly to flavoured ice-blended drinks so the emergence of a shop offering a milk tea variant naturally intrigued me.
It’s worth noting that at its peak in 2002, Singapore was home to close to 5,000 bubble tea shops, which inevitably led to ruthless price wars and competition before the bubble officially burst in 2004.
It was only in early 2010 that the milk tea variant of bubble tea re-emerged into the Singapore market, with franchises promising quality ingredients and products backed by well-known international brands from Taiwan and China.
For younger consumers born in the late 90s to early 2000s, their first brush with bubble tea was probably less like mine and more similar to their first taste of McDonald’s burgers and fries. It's a defining aspect of childhood, perhaps spilling over to the formative years of teenhood.
By the time they have purchasing power, these millennial consumers would have grown up with an indelible impression of bubble tea, given its easy inclusion into daily life and its quick and unstoppable penetration into the heartlands.
Such familiarity is a source of comfort, giving us little reason to move away and towards anything new.
A WORTHY CONTENDER EMERGES
Yet, as sure and as steady as bubble tea’s rise to the top of Singapore’s F&B scene, given Singapore’s penchant for new food trends, it's simply a matter of time before a competitor dethrones bubble tea from its peak crowning glory.
And by the looks of it, that could very well be the coconut shake, a blended beverage made with coconut gelato, coconut juice, and coconut pulp.
One of my favourite coconut shake joints is Mr Coconut at Waterway Point. Readers who live in Punggol would know and would probably have seen the snaking queue for Mr Coconut outside Punggol MRT station.
I am not ashamed to admit that I have queued at Mr. Coconut for a good 30 minutes just to place my order before waiting another 20 minutes for it to be ready. Much like other coconut shake aficionados, I, too, am incredibly drawn to its refreshing taste, in all its 0 per cent sugar glory, a mouthfeel that is far superior from the usual concoction of tea and milk.
It’s an unprecedented success that could very well overthrow bubble tea off the top of the F&B food chain.
But with more bubble tea brands taking over empty or abandoned storefronts in malls, I reckon it will be some time later before the industry reaches saturation.
This bubble is unlikely to burst anytime soon.
Zat Astha is Editor-in-Chief of SETHLUI.com
("Hawkers are not stupid or stubborn." Find out why KF Seetoh says it will take more than hawkers embracing deliveries and going digital to save Singapore's food culture on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast.)