The cutthroat war behind China’s creative milk tea craze

“The beverage industry is very deep; there’s a lot that’s not apparent on the surface,” Mr. Yan warns me, his gaze owlish across a frothy display of “milk cap” drinks on the counter. “It’s deep, and there’s a lot that I can’t talk about. I’m just letting you know as a courtesy.”

Last August, beverage fans around the world were incensed by a comically clueless New York Times trend piece on “bubble milk tea,” that “curious amalgam…[of] the Far East.” In response, they tweeted photos and sang praises to the tasty, fresh, and innovative concoctions that the milk tea industry has been brewing for decades, apparently unbeknownst to the Starbucks snobs of the mainstream, a wholesome tale of an immigrant creation triumphing in the American beverage market.

This is not that story.

Instead, our tale begins in secrecy and falsehood at Yan’s business, the bombastically named Royal Tea: New Chinese-Style Tea Flagship Store—in fact a one-window kiosk down a late-night food alley. Yan makes coy references to being a “just a small business owner,” explaining that “it’s not convenient to reveal” how he got started.

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Bubble Trouble is a story from our issue, “Vital Signs.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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