TAKING A LEAF OUT OF TAIWAN (AND VIETNAM): HOW “TAIWANESE” IS TAIWANESE BUBBLE TEA? 

Part II (Part I can be found here)

Image credit: Tea Plantation, Vietnam, by Ania/Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Written by Kuan-Ren Yun (雲冠仁), translated by Sam Robbins

In 2017, as part of fieldwork in Northern Vietnam, I met K, the first Taiwanese Oolong producer to move to the region. K is also famous in Taiwan for tea production. Following Lee Teng-hui’s Southbound policy in the 1990s, K moved to Vietnam to produce tea leaves for drinks before switching to Oolong tea as the drink became more popular. 

K realised that Southern Vietnam was unsuitable for producing the high-quality Ruanzhi variety of Oolong. This tea variety likes cold environments, which experience a greater range of temperatures. Although Southern Vietnam was at a suitable altitude, the heat left only a few of the plants planted to survive. K was thus early to realise that Ruanzhi Oolong should be kept in Northern Vietnam, and he worked for over ten years to develop Oolong cultivation in the region. This said, when I met K in 2017, K said, “it was a mistake to bring Ruanzhi to Northern Vietnam.”

K told me this was because of the rise of the bubble tea market in Vietnam, particularly in Northern Vietnam. Because Northern Vietnam has historically had close links to China and has thus long had a developed tea culture, Northern Vietnamese consumers were more inclined to bubble tea. In contrast, coffee still largely rules Ho-Chi Min city in the south. K told me that tea culture has been changing at incredible speeds, and producers can no longer rely on producing leaves to be sold as leaves and instead should be producing tea leaves to be sold to bubble tea stores. K told me, “For Vietnamese people, bubble tea is a part of Taiwanese culture, so they assume that tea leaves produced by Taiwanese people are of better quality, and there is thus a lot of market demand.”

Mr Chen is a Vietnam-based Taiwanese businessperson. In addition to his primary business, he runs a bubble tea store called ‘Taiwan goodtea.’ When talking about his products, he was very upfront about the fact that he relies on Vietnamese tea leaves and that these leaves take up a big part of the tea leaves he uses.

You may now ask yourself how bubble tea sold in Vietnam using Vietnamese tea leaves gets the label “Taiwan good Tea”? When I asked this, Chen smiled, and then stated that making tea drinks is not as easy as it seems. There is a technique called “leaf matching,” wherein tea leaves produced at various times and of varying quality are mixed in specific formulas to create a product of reliable and standardised quality and taste. This allows for tea produced at any time to be used and sold. If you mix different tea varieties in tea stores, you can make a distinct, stable, and price-efficient product. However, if you rely only on expensive tea leaves, you will likely have to sell at a price point that is unappealing to most consumers. Mixing leaves is not only about creating a unique flavour but also keeping costs downs. 

Chen told us his drinks mixed Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Sri Lankan tea leaves. Although the quantity of tea leaves from Taiwan is extremely low, it plays an irreplaceable role in producing the distinctive taste of the final product. Taiwanese tea leaves plus special “leaf matching” strategies developed in Taiwan is what Chen is confident in calling his product “Taiwan good tea,” even if the majority of raw material comes from Vietnam. Chen describes such Vietnamese tea as a crucial “base ingredient” for his drinks, and his drinks have a more complex flavour profile through the addition of these leaves. 

When I was talking to Chen, it reminded me of my experience of talking to Taiwanese tea farmers about tea matching. Many tea farmers think of tea matching as a difficult skill to master. Lipton is often given as an example: every teabag contains tea from many countries, and tea matchers mix them into a stable and unique product that consumers love. It is because of this that Lipton regards their tea matching strategy as their most vital industry secret

Chen also gave the example of coffee. Most of the coffee we drink now is of mixed origin, with coffee Canephora mixed in to lower the production costs. Unlike Vietnamese tea mixed with Taiwanese tea, such mixing in the coffee industry is often seen as bad practice or a way to trick consumers. Chen asked me, “if coffee can be mixed, why can’t tea leaves be matched? This leads us to ask, how to define the boundary between Taiwanese and Vietnamese tea?

Through Mr Chen’s recommendation, I got to know his upstream manufacturer A, the owner of a Taiwanese tea factory. A operates a tea store in Vietnam. When we were in a private gathering, A told me there is not enough Taiwanese tea for consumers, especially those trying to export their bubble tea; it is thus necessary to rely on Vietnamese leaves. Here he recounted a story about his return to his hometown in Taiwan. 

A had been working in Vietnam for a long time and had just returned to his hometown to visit his parents. His neighbours noticed his long absence and recent success and asked about his line of work. He told them about his tea production in Vietnam and how many drinks stores in Vietnam were using leaves his company grew. He did not expect that his neighbours would start to gossip about him and criticise him, seeing him as a criminal who had attacked Taiwan’s domestic tea industry. But, in a fleet of anger, he told his neighbours, “I swear on the incense sticks in my house that I am not doing anything illegal.”

I also met Y through K, who also operates a drinks store in Vietnam. Y also sells his brand as Taiwanese and claims his products represent the ‘true taste of Taiwan.’ Out of curiosity, I brazenly asked Y whether his tea leaves came from Taiwan. Y was frank in his response: 

In reality, all the tea he used was produced in Vietnam.

Y said the leaves were purchased “from a Taiwanese manufacturer” and “although they are grown in Vietnam, they are matched using Taiwanese technology. Taiwanese people manage quality management, so why can’t we be called Taiwanese tea? Or at least be a part of Taiwanese tea.” 

Regardless of whether it was Y or Chen, they all mentioned that Vietnamese consumers mostly knew that the Taiwanese bubble tea they were drinking was made using Vietnamese leaves. Still, they do not think this means they are being cheated because they see bubble tea in and of itself as part of Taiwanese culture. 

After talking to Y, he took me on a trip across some streets in Hanoi. The streets were filled with Taiwanese drinks stores, Vietnamese drinks stores, Chinese drinks stores and some from other countries too. For Y, this is causing a mess. However, as the source of leaves for each story is increasingly diversifying—and not all stores are relying on Taiwanese operators—he is worried that the Taiwanese bubble tea brand will start to lose its sheen. So, for Y, his future direction is to focus on being Taiwanese and, by branding himself as an expert in tea matching techniques, start to train Vietnamese people to open stores. He can then ensure that the newly opened chain stores will have to use the tea leaves he produces, providing a future market for Taiwanese tea. 

K’s son also agrees with Y; he told me that “globally, only about 10% of tea leaves used in bubble tea are from Taiwan, but all bubble tea relies upon techniques from Taiwan. But might there be a day when Vietnamese tea takes up 100% of the tea leaves used, and Vietnamese producers also learn tea matching techniques? Will Vietnamese bubble tea replace Taiwanese bubble tea?

At least in Taiwan, there has been a big out-lash against using Vietnamese tea leaves in Taiwanese tea stores. Of course, I do not support dishonest matching practices aimed at minimising cost and maximising profits. But we must admit that the transfer of Taiwanese techniques to Vietnam represents an important chapter in Taiwanese tea production history. It is only through Vietnamese leaves that Taiwanese domestic demand has been satisfied. 

As Bubble tea has taken over the world and increasingly become a symbol of Taiwan, this unique Taiwanese flavour has only been possible by importing large qualities of tea leaves, including the Vietnamese tea leaves that so many Taiwanese have grown sceptical of. Taiwanese people have felt pride in the success of bubble tea sales, but they also continue to reject foreign tea leaves and see them as only authentic when only Taiwanese tea leaves are used. Through hearing the opinions of these Taiwanese businesspeople in Vietnam, it is possible to be honest about our anxiety about how Taiwanese bubble tea is and perhaps start to tell a different story about this Taiwanese product that is more faithful to its unique history.

Kuan-Ren Yun drinks bubble tea every day, and has thus become a VIP at his local campus bubble tea store. It was his love of bubble tea that lead him on the path to research. He now works as a high school geography teacher.

This article is part of a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味”). Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here.

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