Controversy brews in Taiwan over ties of home-grown bubble tea chains to mainland

The most recent to land in hot water was Yifang Tea. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

TAIPEI - Taiwanese are passionate about two things: politics and food. But what happens when the two worlds clash?

In the past year or so, bubble tea has been swirling in the rough and tumble world of politics.

A number of home-grown bubble tea chains are being boycotted for being "pro-China." All had opened stores on the mainland, as well as in Hong Kong and Macau, and Chinese companies invested in their expansion.

The most recent to land in hot water was Yifang Tea, a chain with franchises not only in China and Hong Kong but also in the United States. In August 2019, the company had voiced its support for the "one country, two systems" principle after one of its franchises in Hong Kong posted a notice supporting anti-government protesters.

The reaction from Taiwanese citizens was swift.

"I stopped buying their teas... How could you release a statement like that just for business? It's better if you don't say anything at all," said Mr Hung Cheng-fang, 29, a computer engineer based in Taipei. Mr Hung said he had not gone to Yifang or Milk Shop, another bubble tea chain that provoked the ire of many islanders after listing Taiwan as "Taiwan, China" on its social media platforms.

Yifang Tea joined the list of other companies being boycotted for cosying up to the mainland. The other chains include 50 Lan, Dayungs and Truedan, whose Chinese websites state that Taiwan is a part of China. The management of 85 Degrees had released a statement supporting the "1992 consensus" after Chinese netizens slammed its Los Angeles franchise for serving President Tsai Ing-wen during her trip to the US in 2018. Tigersugar came under fire after one of its franchises in China put up a poster wishing the People's Liberation Army a happy birthday in 2019.

"I think because Taiwanese people have gradually developed a sense of their own identity, and because of geopolitics, (we) are well aware when China is trying to take advantage of (Taiwan)... and we think if (these chains) want to earn money in China and are willing to bend their knees for it, then don't even think about taking advantage of Taiwanese people," said Mr Liu Yi-feng, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Mr Liu, who is doing a PhD, said he and his girlfriend have stopped buying drinks from Yifang's New York store since the controversy over the Hong Kong issue.

"The boycotting is a matter of principle and a kind of emotion for Taiwanese people, we don't actually think we can put these stores out of business," said Mr Liu, 34, who added that while he participated in the boycott, he has not tried to persuade his Taiwanese friends in New York to do the same.

While many like Mr Liu and Mr Hung have expressed their displeasure through "consumer retaliation", dentist Shih Shu-hua, 38, decided to go a bit further.

He invested in a friend's bubble tea shop, which uses only local ingredients and is not planning to expand business beyond Taiwan.

"Taiwan is a lovely place. We stand firmly by the fact that Taiwan is a country with sovereignty - this alone is enough reason to not do business in China, where you have to do things their way," said Mr Shih. "I don't care what Taiwan is called (internationally), I think what we're doing is a way to show our love for the land where we grew up."

Mr Shih's shop, Formosa Te, opened in April and has been vocal on social media about the management team's political stance, which is decidedly, pro-Taiwan.

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