Here is the history of bubble tea in Singapore.
Bubble tea was introduced to Singapore in 1992.
In the old days, bubble tea was served in a cocktail glass.
Customers had to drink the beverage dine-in style in cafes or “bubble tea huts”.
First bubble tea shop
The first bubble tea shop was Bubble Tea Garden in Marina Square.
Bubble Tea Garden, in particular, served flavours such as Pearl Red Bubble Tea, Yam Shake, Honey Egg Yolk, Whisky Red Tea and Honey Peppermint.
The majority of the clientele were students, largely Chinese-speaking and who patronise the cafe in groups.
This was a time before social media and the message board put up in the shop for customers to express their thoughts and communicate with one another was novelty.
Took another nine years to become popular
However, it was only in 2001 that bubble tea became phenomenally popular.
Long queues formed at bubble tea shops that only served takeaway bubble tea. They were all over housing estates in Singapore.
By 2002, the number of bubble tea shops grew to at least 5,000.
This led to a surplus of bubble tea retailers.
Hawker centres began to sell bubble tea, with some small start-ups even operating from shops selling items such as cakes and shoes.
The peak of the fad was from March to October 2001. Shops reportedly sold as many as 800 to 1,000 cups a day. The money made was good.
Major chains included Cool Station, Quickly and Milk Girl Ice Cup.
Then the bubble tea bubble burst.
Intense competition and price wars saw prices slashed, one-for-one offers and even lucky draw promotions rolled out to entice customers.
But the emergence of do-it-yourself kits and classes allowed people to make their own bubble tea, which depressed interests and demand overall.
As a result, bubble tea lost its popularity by 2003 and many shops folded.
But bubble tea remained resilient. It did not completely disappear from Singapore’s food scene.
The beverage has experienced a few resurgences in popularity, such as in 2007 and 2011. There were brands such as Happy Lemon that came and went.
There were more than 10 chains and 500 outlets selling bubble tea in 2011.
Currently, the major bubble tea chains are Koi and Gong Cha.
Prices these days are much higher than previously, reaching as much as S$6 per cup as compared to S$3 in the past.
Bubble tea shops have attempted to sustain the popularity of the drink by continually developing new and unusual flavours.
Origins in Taiwan
Bubble tea originates from Taichung, Taiwan.
Liu Han-Chieh, owner of tea house Chun Shui Tang, claims to have invented the beverage in 1983 after being inspired by seeing coffee served cold in Japan.
Previously, tea was usually served hot, so it was considered a novel idea to cool the tea with ice and mix it with various ingredients.
In 1987, a staff member had the idea of adding fen yuan (sweetened tapioca pudding) to her tea, resulting in the creation of the bubble tea pearl.