By Shirley Dinh and Anita Li
Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, the cultural identity of the San Gabriel Valley transitioned from a mainly white community to a central hub for Asian Americans and Mexican Americans after an influx of Asian and Mexican immigrants. After the so called “white flight”, the metropolitan area was taken over by Asian entrepreneurs, who also introduced bubble tea to the San Gabriel Valley. Although the U.S.A. is largely considered a “coffee country”, Taiwanese boba or bubble tea has become an integral part of the history of the San Gabriel Valley due to its appeal and its influence on the social environment of youths in the 626 area.
From its origin to modern day, bubble tea has become increasingly popular in the West Coast of North America, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley. According to Bubbleology, the history of bubble tea dates back to the 1980s where Taiwanese folk constantly drank tea after long days of labor or play. In 1983, boba was introduced to the citizens of Taiwan by a tea shop owner named Liu Han-Chieh who decided to add ‘tapioca pearls’ into the cups of tea. The name, bubble tea, however, did not refer to boba or the tapioca pearls originally but instead referenced the tasty bubbly-foam, powder flavoring that created bubbles when the drink is shook (Wedemeyer). Slowly, the Taiwanese-invented beverage began to spread across the globe and finally reached the Los Angeles County in the late 1990s where “the first dedicated boba tea shop […] opened inside a food court in Arcadia” (LAWeekly). A few years after in the early 2000s, popular boba shop chains today, such as Lollicup, Ten Ren, Tapioca Express, and Quickly emerged in the San Gabriel Valley. Lollicup, which started out as one of the only boba shops in the U.S., now has several locations and distributes about 70% of boba across the country. The company now has a so-called “boba school” in Chino (Wei). The beverage has managed to stay in the market and continues to grow in popularity; it does not seem to show any signs of dying out. According to bubbletea.org, the arrival of bubble tea came at a particularly convenient moment in the history of the North American beverage industry because Americans, at that time, was “developing a taste [palate] for increasingly bizarre caffeinated drinks.” Boba’s sudden appearance in North America in the late 1990s has remained well-received till this day.
Boba tea appeals to the younger consumers as it has a large variety of drinks to pick from, and it provides a refreshing and sensory experience while drinking it. Bin Chen and Andrew Chau from the bubble tea company Boba Guys Inc. told Quarts Media that boba “lights up your sense of smell and taste. And the tapioca pearls add a whole new dimension of mouthfeel. It’s like drinking with gummy bears.” (Bram). The taste of the warm tapioca pearls at the bottom of a boba drink is undeniably a main factor of why so many people enjoy drinking it.
Many boba shops are also adding a twist to the standard idea of just boba milk tea, such as adding desserts to the top, and constantly figuring out ways to make their boba tea unique. For example, a boba shop in San Diego, sells boba drinks with a piece of a crepe cake on the very top of the drink, making it an “Instagram-worthy” drink. Bursting boba is another unique type of boba that bursts in your mouth once you bite into it. A boba shop in San Gabriel, Labobatory also sells alcoholic boba, targeting the consumers that enjoy light alcohol during their free time.
Another major factor of why boba tea is so popular is the presentation and aesthetic factor of the drink overall. Before diving into the drink, young people tend to post about their drink over social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat. A recent trend involving presentation is the light bulb boba drink trend. It started in South Korea, when a boba shop started to use actual light bulbs as an alternative to standard plastic cups. The trend made its way to California and New York, and many people are willing to wait in long lines for this drink due to it social media presence and the aesthetic factor (Tullo).
Hybrid and mixed flavors is considered another appeal associated with bubble tea. There are over hundreds of flavors to choose from, which keeps customers coming back to try the newest flavor. Constantly trying to create new flavors and applying them uniquely to fit the taste of different kinds of people is an appeal of bubble tea that people cannot seem to let go.
Despite the rise of bubble tea in the U.S.A., it still is one of the largest coffee consuming countries in the world. According to Espresso Business Solutions, approximately 50% of Americans drank 3.1 cups of coffee each day in 2016. However, the younger generation of Americans has been drinking less and less coffee each year as tea consumption continues to grow. The total U.S. coffee consumption is actually down right now, with a 2% decrease in consumption according to the 67th National Coffee Drinking Trends Report released by the National Coffee Association. Mainly millennials are drinking large amounts of tea, while the older generation is leaning towards coffee consumption. As years pass by, we can expect a larger rise in tea consumption, as coffee consumption declines in the U.S.
Moreover, the increasing demand for tea has essentially made tea the world’s top drink as described in an article from National Geographic titled The World’s Top Drink by Dan Stone. Stone states:
“Tea beats coffee in a lot of ways. It predates coffee by about 3,000 years, and is thought to have first been harvested in 2700 B.C. by the emperor Shen Nung who was known as “the divine healer.” Coffee didn’t come until the tenth century at the earliest […]. [Tea] is generally cheaper to buy.”
Tea has many positive notes regarding its appeal to the public. It has “overarching simplicity” (Stone). The prominence of tea is definitely a significant contributor to bubble tea’s success. Not only does bubble tea contain various flavors of “the world’s top drink” as shown in Figure 1, but it also gives its customers the liberty to choose what they want in their beverages.
The popular beverage was not free of negative stories regarding the ingredients used to create the novelty drink. There have been news reports about how bubble tea may cause cancer specifically an article written by Meredith Bennett-Smith titled “Bubble Tea Tapioca Pearls May Contain Cancer-Causing Chemicals, German Study Claim.” Despite being a widely-consumed drink and having articles about its possible negative impacts on one’s health, boba continues to be well-received. “The sugary specialty beverage, generally milk-based and filled with chewy balls of tapioca, may also include cancer-causing chemicals” as stated in Bennett-Smith’s Huffington Post article. Not only does bubble tea have reports about potentially causing cancer but also is associated with unhealthiness. It is “revealed that a 12-ounce serving of boba can contain about 90 grams of sugar, 7 grams of fat, and 490 calories” (General). Though people may be worried about the impact that the drink’s content may have on their healths, nowadays customers have “healthier alternatives” to choose from such as the percentage of sugar content in their drink. Healthwise, boba is not preferred, but the endless flavors and toppings that customers can choose to go alongside the drink make them overlook bubble tea’s negative side. Nevertheless, the news articles state what they believe, but it is ultimately up to the consumers to decide whether they want to believe in what is written and to what extent is it true. The reports do not affect boba customers immensely. It takes more to stop the crave.
There are alternative options for people who want to consume tasty, but healthier tea. For example, many boba shops take orders with modifications, such as less sugar, or a quarter sugar in the tea. Teas that are not made artificially, but from tea leaves and fresh ingredients are also considered to be healthier options.
The population of the San Gabriel Valley may be an influential factor in the boba market’s success. The demographics of those residing in San Gabriel prove to be predominantly Asian (60.7%) according to the 2010 San Gabriel City Hall statistics. A majority of the community’s population are made up of Asians who tend to be lured by the fascinating drink the most. The culture in the San Gabriel Valley revolves around boba as seen through the Fung Brothers 2012 music video titled Bobalife that “perfectly captured [the San Gabriel Valley’s] culture” (LAWeekly). It emphasized and showcased the extent to which boba has influenced the residents’ lives. In the video that was released on YouTube, it gives real life documentation of how typically, Asian teens and young adults hang out with one another at boba shops. Teens and young adults particularly those aged 15 to 34 years represent approximately 28.81% of the San Gabriel population according to the San Gabriel City Hall 2010 demographics. Till present day, many people spend most of their time hanging out at boba places while satisfying their taste buds with boba. It is rare to not find a boba place with a few miles when you are in the SGV. LAWeekly states that “boba shops are more alive than ever [in the San Gabriel Valley compared to those in Taiwan]; if you happen to stroll into one on a Friday evening, the population would rival that of a downtown bar.” Despite the various boba shops from numerous chains, boba culture continues to grow as people get more creative with what toppings to add to the drink in order to lure customers to their shops. Essentially, the customers are getting the same product, namely bubble tea.
Boba shops in the SGV or in the west coast in general, tend to create social spaces for people to come together. Many students band together in a boba shop to drink tea and eat small snacks after school. This lifestyle has become so adamant that most boba shops nowadays provide games, such as Jenga, Uno, and decks of cards to entertain customers during their long stays. Wei reminisces back on her youthful days in the SGV:
“But while boba may no longer be a daily part of your life, it’s still a part of you because it is where you meet up with your childhood friends. In your teens, it was daily. Then in college, monthly. Now it’s annually, if you’re lucky. No matter where you are in the world, eventually you will come back home to visit.”
Wei states that going to a boba shop, and hanging out with friends was and is a norm in the SGV. It is imprinted into our memories and is hard to move away from for a lot of people who go to boba shops regularly.
The history of boba tea and how it came to the Los Angeles area is deeply rooted in the social culture of the SGV. With the evolution of the appearance, taste, and price of boba tea, comes opportunities to post on social media. Over several years, the boba lifestyle and culture has grown to become apart of the social identity of youths in the San Gabriel Valley. As the boba culture, boba lifestyle, and boba shops continues to grow and evolve, so will the people in the SGV who love and enjoy drinking boba. Living in the San Gabriel Valley is living in a boba bubble.
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