Memes and Milk Tea Alliances: Ludic activism in Taiwan in 2021

Written by Genevieve Leung

Image Credit: Milk Tea Alliance Flag, License: Public Domain

Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, curious sets of memes, or humorous digital items spread online from person to person via the internet, began surfacing about milk tea. One showed a graph from Johns Hopkins data of a comparison of various countries’ COVID-19 cases with a drawn-in overlay of names of countries most affected in March (e.g., Italy, Spain, Iran) circled in red with the label, “No bubble tea.” Countries with fewer cases (e.g., Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea) were circled in blue. Again, they labelled them “Bubble tea,” a false correlation with humorous intent between drinking bubble tea to lower infection rates. Oddly, Taiwan, notably the birthplace of milk tea, was not represented in this image. Another graphic later appeared with three hands forming a “cheers” action, each holding a type of milk tea in a celebratory toast: on the left, Taiwanese bubble tea in a tall cup and a red plastic straw; in the Centre, Thai tea with a red and white striped straw; on the right, Hong Kong milk tea in a red-rimmed, white teacup. The meme also includes the creator, “Milkteaology,” and its logo, along with hashtags #MILKTEA, #THAI, #TAIWAN, and #HONGKONG. Later iterations also included a hand for Australia, holding a can of Aptamil infant formula. Taiwan News ran the meme as its Photo of the Day for April 29, 2020, titled, “Australia joins Milk Tea Alliance with Taiwan.” Subsequent expansions of the meme had India, Mongolia, Japan, and Malaysia incorporated. Looking at these memes involving milk tea, a casual observer might ask: Was there really a Milk Tea Alliance built upon ideas of Milkteaology? 

The Milk Tea Alliance was formed when Mainland Chinese social media users attacked two Thai celebrities to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and Taiwan independence activists. Thai social media users deployed humour to combat the attacks, and Taiwan and Hong Kong users joined in, using the shared custom of drinking milk tea, along with various minoritized statuses, as the cohesive forces that “naturally” drew them together. Similar Milk Tea Alliance allyship instances occurred during a friendly competition among Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan in the online game Popcat. The game involves users, teamed up by country, clicking on a picture of a cat’s mouth, causing it to open its mouth and make a pop sound. Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan have been battling for first place since August 2021, and when Team Thailand reached first place on August 16, Thai user @RosaLynaLerman tweeted, “We are grateful for our friendship in the milk tea alliance. But Taiwan, you have an amazing government & Malaysia, I heard your PM has resigned. In Thailand, we neither have any of these things. Please let us have small happiness for this victory.”. The latter half of 2021 was marked with similar signals from various nations expressing allyship with Taiwan. Some were more direct and less joking in nature and others stylized in a more cute, playful aesthetic for marketing.

There were no actual signatory nations nor a physical document of alliance involved. Still, these playful, imagined connections and their circulation and inclusion of increasingly more contexts showcase the online aesthetic performance of everyday dissent and transnational alliance-building. These jokes are framed and stylized as ludic (humorous) play while bringing standard views of politics to the surface. We see “traditional” forms of “dutiful citizenship” involving engagement with formal political institutions shifting into forms of “actualizing citizenship,” where participants prioritize digital expression and peer-to-peer discourses in looser, informal networks. These real and imagined alliances link squarely to how individuals, groups, and sub-groups play with(in) these realms. 2021 has been quite a fruitful year for Taiwan to examine how memes relating to Taiwan and alliances move across intertextual chains. In other words, how they are spread, copied, morphed, sustained, commented upon, and recirculated in humorous forms.

Having experienced unprecedented success in the 2020-turned-2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, memes about Taiwan in the Olympics produced insight into how Taiwanese people saw themselves in the global political arena. The much-circulated memes relating to the Olympics badminton men’s doubles final, where Taiwan’s Lee Yang (李洋) and Wang Chi-lin (王齊麟) defeated China’s Liu Yuchen (劉雨辰) and Li Junhui (李俊慧), are particularly illustrative of this. Following the win, one could find countless memes circulating about the final Hawkeye challenge over the match point, which clearly detailed Team Taiwan’s shuttlecock squarely falling “in.” This “Taiwan In” visual became stylized to become an emblem of Taiwan, appearing on t-shirts and masks as a triumphant example of Taiwan’s inclusion in the global sphere. In fact, its official image title is “Flag of the New Nation” (新世代國旗). This is a poignant reminder of how the internet and technology, with all their potential to surveil and censor, can also be a site of expression that openly shares content relevant to people across common time. In focus groups on memes in Taiwan that I have run in Taiwan with university students, respondents have reported that these “Taiwan In” visuals were especially humorous and demonstrated a form of humour and visual play that helped to express the thoughts of Taiwanese people this year, especially in contexts of political marginalization where it seemed the only outlet was to laugh at the situation and at oneself. Much like the precursor slogan, “Taiwan Can Help,” this “Taiwan In” motif also serves as an unconventional yet effective way for Taiwanese people’s voices to be heard (and Taiwan itself to be seen) in global discussions.

Thus, while memes and other seemingly innocuous playful online resources might easily be dismissed as stand-alone jokes that young people use to avoid writing at length what they mean or feel, we also see the ways memes frequently actually map onto larger, complex discourses of activism and political commentary across time and context in strategic ways. As with humour in general, the unexpected incongruity – be it Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan coming together to align themselves as a political bloc or badminton court lines being the canvas for a Taiwan national flag – disrupts what is known and expected. Through this temporary subversion and suspension of power structures, sometimes called the “carnivalesque,” permits taboos and play as acceptable. This type of ludic activism has been shown to lower activism fatigue costs, reinforce internal cohesion, and foster collective identity. It is worth further investigating this new communicative grammar to contemporary activism.

The investigation of memes is fascinating because, in theory, the intertextual chains can continue forever. Their novelty and humour factors have expiration dates. The Taiwanese students I spoke with were also quick to point out how some current memes were no longer trending or required too much context to be funny. In other words, a level of creative complexity needs to be demonstrated for memes to be successful. 2021 for Taiwan was filled with fodder to spawn the creative process. As increasing geopolitical tensions and reconfiguring discourses among Taiwan and its neighbours are sure to continue into 2022, we can expect a bountiful corpus of ludic activism examples created by and for Taiwanese people and their allies.

Genevieve Leung is an associate professor of Rhetoric and Language and academic director of the MA in Asia Pacific Studies at San Francisco. She is a 2021 MOFA Taiwan Fellowship recipient.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled ‘Taiwan 2022: Reflections, Predictions and Trends”.

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