Trying to bring political change through bubble tea



New York City’s first ever Bubble Tea Festival takes places in Times Square. Photo: Jinsol Jung.

To help advance Taiwan’s push for inclusion in the United Nations, a festival celebrating bubble tea, a Taiwanese drink, took place in Times Square on September 24, the same week as the United Nations General Assembly meeting.

Taiwan, an island off the coast of mainland China with its own government and currency, has been vying for more than 20 years for readmission into the United Nations. However, its official status as a separate country from China is still heavily debated.

In the midst of this political push, Hello Taiwan, an organization that promotes Taiwanese culture through concerts and festivals, put together the first ever Bubble Tea Festival in New York City.

On a hot Sunday afternoon, thousands of people lined up between Broadway and 51st Street to taste a variety of the specialty beverage. The drink comes in fruit or milk teas, with chewy tapioca balls at the bottom. The festival had a giant balloon display of a bubble tea cup, live musical performances and several arts and crafts activities.

Bo Hsu, the event organizer, said that a thousand bubble tea sampling tickets online sold out in less than two weeks. 

“Bubble tea brings me back to my college days,” said Sean Jackson, a festival attendee. “One of my friends from China introduced me to it way back then and I instantly liked the taste.” Jackson, a musician living in New York City, said that he first tried bubble tea in the early 2000’s. “Back then it was very rare to walk around New York City and see bubble tea shops.”

Now, it’s a very different tapestry. At the festival, there were at least 30 vendors, nine of them just for bubble tea. One of the vendors, Gong Cha, is a bubble tea franchise originally from Taiwan with a dozen locations in New York City.

“Business is growing and by the end of the year I plan on opening one or two more stores in New York,” said 27-year-old Anchal Lamba, owner of the Gong Cha shops in the United States. Lambda opened her first one in April 2014 and plans to open a new store at the Fulton Street Station ground floor kiosk by the end of this year.

Many festival-goers said the best part of the event was just seeing everyone enjoying the drinks. “This is the first bubble tea festival in New York City,” said 22-year-old Kelly Pooler. “That’s pretty cool and I want to support it.”

According to Hsu, the festival came at an opportune time, after a widely criticized article about bubble tea that ran in the New York Times in August. The piece called tapioca pearls “blobs,” and referred to bubble tea as “exotic.”

Lamba, who was interviewed for the Times article, said, “I think the writer just didn’t know about bubble tea. I grew up drinking bubble tea and my friends all grew up drinking it.”

The event also had a political objective. At the festival, there were pink blocks that were part of an art installation. According to Hsu, the purpose of it was to raise awareness of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, and to showcase how Taiwan is reportedly exceeding in this area.

“Taiwan Matters” art installation at the festival. Photo: Jinsol Jung.

Ever since the U.N. decided to abide by the “One China Policy” in 1971 — which meant recognizing Taiwan as part of China and thereby removing Taiwan from the U.N. — the Taiwanese government has been trying to get back in and reclaim its official independence.

An event like this “can bring awareness and let people explore more about Taiwan,” said Hsu. “Many people we spoke to did not even know that Taiwan is not in the U.N.”

Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University, does not think that events like these will help Taiwan’s U.N. goal. But he does believe that these promotional events have some degree of impact on groups that have influence, like diplomats and academics. “They help to keep the issue of Taiwan’s status alive in the consciousness of various audiences,” he said.

Hsu couldn’t predict if an event like a bubble tea festival could help Taiwan, but he said the push for inclusion in the United Nations is  “a long term process.”