Consuming Singapore: The obsession with bubble tea

Singaporeans can’t get enough of bubble tea. From bubble tea-inspired jewellery to desserts, multimedia journalist Rachel Quek investigates Singapore’s love affair with bubble tea - and the reasons for its early demise and subsequent revival.
From bubble tea-inspired jewellery to desserts, multimedia journalist Rachel Quek investigates Singapore’s love affair with bubble tea - and the reasons for its early demise and subsequent revival.
From bubble tea-inspired jewellery to desserts, multimedia journalist Rachel Quek investigates Singapore’s love affair with bubble tea - and the reasons for its early demise and subsequent revival.

SINGAPORE - There is a bubble tea craze sweeping across Singapore again, and it is catching on elsewhere too, even as related products are popping up.

Etude House, a South Korean beauty label, released bubble tea-inspired sleeping masks in 2016, while local bakery BreadTalk launched bubble tea cake rolls and buns last year.

YouTubers around the world also hopped onto the bubble tea craze, making videos about consuming and interacting with the drink in extreme ways. One YouTuber made giant tapioca pearls (a common bubble tea topping), while another made milk tea in a bathtub and soaked herself in it.

The global bubble tea market was valued at US$1.96 billion (S$2.67 billion) in 2016 and is projected to reach US$3.21 billion by 2023, according to research firm Allied Market Research.

In 2016, North America and the Asia-Pacific accounted for more than 83 per cent of the global bubble tea industry, in terms of value.

Despite the growing thirst for bubble tea around the world, the drink came to Singapore's shores much earlier in 2001. The fad peaked from March to October 2001, when shops sold about 800 to 1,000 cups a day.

Competition among bubble tea shops was so fierce that one store even used scantily clad models to entice customers.

 
 
 

"Models can move around and they are attractive. People can look at them, get closer, and hear what you want to say about your product," said Mr Jeffrey Chung, the director of Jeffrey Chung Models. He was the owner of Fei Fei Bubble Tea from 2001 to 2003.

Bubble tea shops proliferated, with a whopping 5,000 shops in 2002. But the bubble burst in 2003 and many stores eventually closed down.

Even so, the craze saw a resurgence in 2011 as new Taiwanese bubble tea chains entered the local market. Since then, Singapore has seen two more waves in the drink's popularity - in 2018 and 2019.

Why has bubble tea remained popular in Singapore for more than 10 years? What makes each wave different?

Find out what Singaporeans consume and what consumes them in the first instalment of a new video series on Consuming Singapore.