Bubble Tea Fest Celebrates Taiwan’s Food and Culture

  • Youth volunteers demonstrated the Chinese yo-yo at the first-ever Bubble Tea Festival on Sept. 24. (All photos by Allyson Escobar for Voices of NY)
It’s more than sweetened milk tea and an assortment of colorful, chewy tapioca pearls for attendees at the inaugural NYC Bubble Tea Festival in Times Square. The drink, originating in Taiwan during the 1980s, is a cultural phenomenon.

Quan Chien Phan, an immigrant from Taipei who now lives on Long Island, came to the festival on Sept. 24 after seeing an invite on Facebook.

“I got so excited. I love bubble tea! I usually have to go all the way to Flushing for the good kind,” said Phan, 35. “I like when the tapioca is firm, and when the tea is imported…also, not too sweet.”

“What makes it unique: Instead of just getting a plain drink you’re sipping, when you get bubble tea, you’re sipping and chewing!” said attendee Tiffany Zhang, 18, a student at NYU.

The festival, held on a warm Sunday on a block-long stretch of Broadway, was a colorful celebration of Taiwanese culture, and in particular of a favorite drink of both Asians and non-Asians: bubble tea; also known as “pearls,” and (more frequently on the West Coast) as “boba.”

From innovative shops like Boba Guys and Tea and Milk, to traditional favorites like Gong Cha and Kung Fu Tea, the city’s colorful boba scene has bloomed throughout the boroughs.

“We were thinking of a creative way to reach everyone, both Asian and non-Asian, and we thought, how about bubble tea,” said Borcheng Hsu, a main organizer of the festival, from the Taiwanese American Council of Greater New York. “Bubble tea is one of the most recognized items from Taiwan. Our community is always trying to figure out how to elevate Taiwanese culture, to bridge the generations.”

The festival was spearheaded by a partnership of community organizations in the tri-state area, including the Taiwanese American Council, the Taiwanese American Association of New York, the Taiwanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, and Hello Taiwan, a New York-based group that promotes connection with Taiwanese heritage. These and other cultural groups have for several years organized Passport to Taiwan, a festival held in Union Square during Taiwanese American Heritage Week.

With the new Bubble Tea Festival, sponsored by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture and the Tourism Bureau, organizers are hoping to make new inroads by enhancing not only cultural, but also political awareness.

In addition to offering tasty food and drinks, the festival also creatively (and subtly) highlighted Taiwan’s rather ambiguous political status. A geological art installation, by the Keep Taiwan Free coalition, featured six bench-sized objects representing the tectonic plates that form the island. Strewn across the “island” were postcards showing the various industries Taiwan contributes to (such as healthcare, farming and business).

“Taiwan wants to become a global partner for sustainable development, if the world welcomes her,” the postcards read.

The democracy debate has persisted since 1979, after the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act by the U.S. Congress. Taiwan (also called the Republic of China) is not formally recognized as a sovereign nation by the U.S., but is still considered part of the People’s Republic of China. Despite a strong worldwide presence, Taiwan’s government is also not part of the United Nations.

[A fact sheet from the Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs maintains that the U.S. “does not support Taiwan independence,” but “strong, unofficial relations with Taiwan is a major goal…to further peace and stability in Asia.”]

“We want to raise awareness that this is an issue, and let people know there are things that Taiwan can do very well, and that we are willing to help, but the international community excludes us,” said Hsu. “Taiwan’s leader cannot come to New York freely. That’s a problem for the world.”

In New York City, the Taiwanese population is growing rapidly, from 4,288 in 2000 to 11,680 in 2010. By 2015, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey estimates, the city’s Taiwan-born population totalled 22,644. (Some of this growth may have been due to a reclassification of immigrants from Chinese to Taiwanese).  Popular bubble tea spots – such as CoCo – are typically owned by Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans.

“When we talk about Taiwan…few people know that [bubble tea] originated from there,” said Taipei’s Economic and Cultural Office Ambassador, Lily Hsu.

At the festival, attendees immersed themselves in Taiwanese culture, watching the 22-year-old Chio-Tian Folk Drums and Art Troupe, which flew in from Taiwan to perform a mix of acrobatics, folk dances, and drumming, and sampling tasty street foods such as rice patties, pork intestine vermicelli, and fried fish cakes.

“It reminds me of home. Here, I feel connected,” said Lucas Chen, 31, a festival volunteer originally from Tainan, who now lives in Long Island City. “Taiwan is a very small island. We don’t have much visibility, but by having this kind of event, New Yorkers get to see the unique cultural traditions we have up close.”

A tasting ticket for $10 gave attendees a chance to try different bubble tea samples from the various vendor booths, which included spots like Queens’ Panda Cafe and SoHo’s Bar Pa Tea.

“I drink [boba] like, everyday practically,” said Cameron Downy, 18, a student at Columbia University. “At first I thought it was Vietnamese or Japanese, because those places also sell [bubble tea]. But it’s important to know exactly where it comes from.”

The festival organizers also understood that bubble tea, like many Asian foods, is often exoticized or “othered” in mainstream culture, despite there being numerous shops in New York City.

A New York Times business article published in August was originally titled, “The Blobs in Your Tea? They’re Supposed to Be There,” referring to the tapioca pearls. It also mentioned that boba drinks were “relatively new to the mass market…and contain ingredients alien to most coffee addicts.” (The Times has since responded to the mass backlash.)

Organizers said they had already been planning the festival, but the the Times coverage gave their effort added impetus.

Observed college graduate Julianna H., 23, from Princeton, New Jersey: “I feel like boba shops pop up in places with an established Asian community, and people know about it,” she said. “There was also that poorly-titled, super outdated [Times] article… And I love how the response was like, let’s have a festival.”

Allyson Escobar is a member of the 2018 class at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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