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Bubble tea is in the midst of a renaissance.
And there’s no place in Australia that’s as alive to this phenomenon than along a small strip on Buckingham avenue in Springvale, Melbourne. This small pocket of suburbia (you’ll walk less than 500m to visit every available teahouse) is home to at least 10 dedicated bubble tea vendors (at the time of this article), not including cafes in the area complementing their businesses with bubble tea options in order to stay alive (Melbourne has long seen this with coffee, where even supermarkets offer “barista-brewed” coffee). That means, on average, there’s a bubble tea vendor every few seconds in every direction.
So what makes Springvale so special that investors feel the urge to open more stores in spite of the market saturation? And what is it about bubble tea (or boba, as it’s affectionately known) that customers just can’t get enough of?
A very brief history of bubble tea (boba)
Bubble tea is in its purest form a concoction of tea, milk, and pearls. It’s sweet. And delicious. The pearls are the perfect chewy counter to the sweet nectar of tea and sweetened milk. Everything from how you’re supposed to shake and invert the cup before drinking, to the delicate act of piercing your straw through the heat sealed plastic film, is a ritual. With so many available flavours, not liking bubble tea can be likened to not liking gelati. There’s always a flavour for you.
While there are many names for bubble tea (including any concatenation of bubble, milk, pearl, boba and tea), there are two unique origin stories that currently vie for the title of inventing bubble tea (much like how its widely known that Australia invented pavlova before New Zealand).
Both stories start in Taiwan, but the first takes place in the city of Tainan, home to the Hanlin Teahouse. While taking a stroll through the Ya Mu Liao market, owner Tu Tsong-he is alleged to have stumbled across white tapioca pearls, which he subsequently decided to add to his existing tea drinks. It is said that he then mixed the pearls with brown sugar and honey to create the dark version that is ubiquitous today. As to what the white tapioca pearls were being used for in the market prior to being in bubble tea, well, that remains a mystery. But it makes for a good story on the origin of “pearls”.
The industrial city of Taichung is home to the alternative origin story. Here, the Chun Shui Tang Teahouse credits a voyage to Japan in the 1980s by its owner, Liu Han-Chieh, as the inspiration for serving cold tea. This was a crucial evolution in tea at the time and its popularity blossomed first in the absence of pearls. It wasn’t until Lin Hsui Hui, the company’s product development manager is said to have added a chewy dough (粉圓 fen yuan) to her beverage out of sheer boredom during a meeting that the bubble tea we’re familiar with today was supposedly invented. The year was 1988, the year of the earth dragon. The beverage was quickly added to their menu and soon became their most popular product. It’s another great story.
Whichever origin story you adhere to, bubble tea is reaching a level of global influence that’s akin to the invention of any widely recognised beverage. Just as we don’t have a definitive origin story on beer (a beverage with a growing number of variations, let alone how many types of pale ales creep into the market), other than to say it was first mentioned in Mesopotamian (ancient Iraq) literature, the first ever concoction of bubble tea will forever remain a mystery.
As bubble tea spread beyond Taiwan and into China, it took on a slightly different form, as pearls started to increase in size, giving birth to the moniker of boba (which in Chinese uses the words bubble and big 波霸 to denote a rather tantalising innuendo).
Over the decades, bubble tea has seen rapid growth throughout Asia, North America, and Europe. More recently, it has seen flourish in Latin America. In 2012, McDonald’s in Germany introduced bubble tea to its McCafé menu, which was probably just a bit too far.
Typical variations of the drink use oolong or green tea, different flavours of milk and sugar, complemented by a smorgasbord of toppings that include chewy tapioca balls (pearls), popping versions of boba, as well as all manner of jelly cubes and tidbits. In one of the latest innovations, cheese froth has found its way into the mix as a strange, yet, satisfying derivative of the original classic.
A very brief history of Springvale
Located about 26km from the Melbourne CBD, Springvale has undergone a number of transformations over the decades. Originally part of the Dandenong shire, Springvale was named after its then untouched vast natural springs, which served as a source of water for travellers between Dandenong and Melbourne sitting the 1800s (fitting then that travellers now seek the refuge of bubble tea to quench their thirst). World War II brought further growth as roads were widened and storefronts were consolidated into hubs. Residential growth increased and waves of immigrants, influenced by wars across international borders, have helped to fuel the cultural pot pourri.
In 2011, Springvale consisted proudly of about 70% of residents who were born outside of Australia in 99 countries. Vietnamese migrants formed the largest proportion at 21%, Indians at 11%, with Cambodia and China next at 5%.
But Springvale has for a long time been defined not just by its official population, but by the sheer number of visitors across Melbourne who come for their frugal fix of Asian groceries, food, and now clearly, bubble tea. On any given day, let alone the weekend, tens of thousands of people pass through Springvale, fighting for scraps among limited parking and stagnant traffic.
It’s this “market” feeding the bubble tea bubble. People like a bit of novelty on their travels.
An attempt to explain the enigma
With this many bubble tea stores concentrated in the one location, Springvale has almost become an amusement park for boba (maybe another 5 stores should do it). It presents new possibilities to the idea of a bubble tea crawl.
For every new vendor, there’s the challenge of reinventing the bubble tea experience to ensure sufficient differentiation in the market. This translates to bold architectural experiments, modern product packaging design, mobile integration, and crazy derivations (like cheese froth, what?). So why compete in such a saturated market?
In business, Hotelling’s “model of spatial competition” helps to explain in some way the rationale behind the concentration of bubble tea vendors in Springvale. The idea is that the very existence of bubble tea stores creates an intriguing demand that other vendors want to capitalise on by opening new stores in pockets that cut off foot traffic to the slightly further establishments, creating a hub in the centre. It follows similar mechanics as shopping centres, intersections of fuel stations, and ice cream vendors on a beach.
So it seems that Springvale’s high concentration of bubble tea vendors is a product of itself, fuelled in some way by its own invented hype. Bubble tea stores are known for manufacturing queues to create an inflated sense of demand. Here, each vendor has independently developed a universal demand by sending a message to consumers that the market is flourishing. Surely businesses wouldn’t open up shop if they didn’t think there was a market?
I guess two options now remain. The first is that the bubble bursts (most of the places I photographed had but a handful of customers; it was 11am on a Saturday) and only the most capital-rich franchises survive. The second is that Springvale acknowledges its place as the bubble tea capital and becomes a strip purely of bubble tea establishments. This author certainly hopes for the latter.
Photography by Frankey.