In the early 1990s, before the advent of specialty boba shops, boba milk tea in Los Angeles was just sweet tea in a thick Styrofoam cup, mixed with nondairy creamer, ice and a spoonful of black tapioca pearls, which the staff kept in a bucket of syrup on the bottom shelf of a fridge. It could be found only in Taiwanese restaurants, and you had to ask for it.
In the late 1990s, the first dedicated boba tea shop in Los Angeles County opened inside a food court in Arcadia, and by the early 2000s, a slew of shops dedicated to the beverage had opened. Ten Ren, Quickly, Tapioca Express and Lollicup — all owned by immigrants of Taiwanese descent — were among the first businesses. They concentrated in the San Gabriel Valley, where there was, and still is, a significant Taiwanese and Chinese community.
Today, nearly every block in the Valley has a boba shop. “There are five boba shops around me,” says Elton Keung, the owner of Labobatory on Las Tunas Drive in San Gabriel. “They should call this 'boba block' or something.”
Surprisingly, business is not slow. After all, boba is to the youth here as coffee is to the rest of Los Angeles.
“My mom always told me coffee is not good for you, drink boba instead,” says 20-year-old Pasadena City College student May Van, who has spent her entire life in the San Gabriel Valley.
Invented in the 1980s in Taiwan, the word “boba” refers to the thick, black chewy bits nestled at the bottom of a cold, usually milky drink. They are made with sugar and tapioca flour. Tapioca, which is derived from cassava root, is native to South America but was brought to Taiwan by the Portuguese. It was traditionally served as a sweet, gelatinous dessert. One day, someone decided to put it in tea, and the rest is history.
The exact tea shop of origin is a point of contention. Some say Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in central Taiwan was the progenitor. Others are confident that title belongs to Hanlin Tea Room in southern Taiwan.
“When I was young in Taiwan, the drink just had small, white tapioca balls. We called it pearls, not boba,” my mom, who grew up in southern Taiwan, says. It wasn’t until they changed it to the black balls that we know today that the word boba came into play.
“Boba was slang used to describe women with large breasts,” she explains. “When we were in college and first heard the word, we were embarrassed about it.”
Today, that lewd association has more or less faded. The term boba now refers exclusively to the tapioca we all know and love. It’s cooked in sweet syrup and put in a cup of of cold tea, sugar and nondairy creamer (the latter is an industry standard, given that most East Asians are lactose-intolerant).
From Taiwan, the boba beverage spread to Taiwanese enclaves in North America. Boba tea became the de facto terminology in California. Elsewhere, such as Vancouver and New York, the term bubble tea is the norm.
As a Taiwanese-American kid growing up in the early 2000s in the San Gabriel Valley, the concoction was an integral part of my social life. We, after all, were the first boba generation.
The beverage became a defining symbol of the SGV, and we cheered, in the form of millions of views, when brothers David and Andrew Fung released a 2012 music video titled Boba Life, perfectly capturing a cross-section of our culture that the mainstream had ignored.
To put it into context: My high school, Arcadia High School, was more than 80% Asian and nearly all my friends had similar papers: We were children of Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants who made the occasional trip to the ancestral motherland.
As food-obsessed as our subculture is, it wasn’t so much the drink or the tapioca balls that defined our preference for a particular boba store. After all, most of the boba shops have the same distributors. They mostly source their teas from Tea Ren or Lollicup. Almost all tapioca balls come from Lollicup, which has a giant factory and boba school in Chino.
What mattered was the space and the permanence of the shops.
When I was 22, the guy I was dating took me to Factory Tea Bar, a boba shop in San Gabriel known for its sultry lighting, floor-to-ceiling chalkboard and low tables. He picked up the communal guitar in the corner and crooned Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” to me, a honey black tea with boba for me on the side and a passion fruit tea for him. Years later, after we had broken up and the dust had cleared, we went back to that same spot and ordered the same drinks. Both the guitar and the feelings were gone but that boba shop was still there.
Things weren’t always that classy.
In the 2000s, the shops that sold boba had ragged board games in the corner, IKEA sofas with crumbs all over, and Asian pop music crooning in the background. Yet we chose these places as our sacred gathering grounds after our long SAT-prep tutoring classes. It was a place where we could grab parental-approved beverages and hang out with our friends during the weekends. It was a place to cram for our important tests, and a spot for dates and for heartbreaks.
Quality didn’t vary as much (it still doesn’t) and we didn’t have as many options, either. In Arcadia, it was Tapioca Express with its grab-and-go counter; Quickly, with its cheap Taiwanese lunch specials; and AU79, which was pricier but had, in my opinion, better drinks.
AU79, for the record, remains my favorite shop of all time. Boba loyalty runs deep.
Eventually, the options began expanding: Honey Boba with its fat boba cups, Half & Half for its cloyingly sweet options, etc.
You could tell what kind of person you were by the type of boba shop you frequented. Back then, if you were cheap, you probably went to Tapioca Express. If you were pretentious about your drink quality, AU79 was the place. If you wanted to rub elbows with the fashionable, fresh-from-Taiwan crowd, Half & Half was your best bet.
Note that this is a subculture that’s unique to the States, and strongest in Los Angeles. Sure, the Bay Area might have a decent boba scene by now, but its crowd was heavily influenced by Los Angeles transplants and entrepreneurs.
Yes, boba culture is even stronger in Los Angeles than Taiwan. In Taiwan, while boba shops are still a mainstay, there are few sit-down places dedicated to the drink. In terms of spots catering to the younger generation, Taipei boasts more coffee joints than tea.
This is not true of the San Gabriel Valley.
Boba shops are more alive than ever there; if you happen to stroll into one on a Friday evening, the population would rival that of a downtown bar, except with tea instead of booze and high school sweatshirts instead of a proper coat. Quality has improved significantly from the '90s and there's more competition than ever. Folks are getting creative.
Keung of Labobatory says he sets himself apart with ingredient-minded drinks — for example, real fruit chunks instead of fruit syrup. It makes a big difference, he notes, especially in a space where everyone is selling virtually the same product.
Though I still live in Arcadia, I can barely keep up. The scene, after all, belongs to the younger kids, those who go to school here and don’t necessarily have the option to drive out for craft coffee downtown or sip farm-to-table cocktails.
The truth is, at a certain point, you graduate from boba life.
Your friends no longer debate the merits of a good cup because you realize it’s all the same. You begin to have more beverage options. That one old friend of yours gives up on quantifying boba shops with his spreadsheet of who serves the best boba and at what time. He is now a neurosurgeon and has better things to do.
But while boba may no longer be a daily part of your life, it’s still a part of you because it is where you meet up with your childhood friends. In your teens, it was daily. Then in college, monthly. Now it’s annually, if you’re lucky.
No matter where you are in the world, eventually you will come back home to visit.
I can’t wait for that moment when one day, my generation is gray, and we all come back to our respective, favorite boba shops. A cup in hand, we will begin telling the story of our lives and how this was where it all started.