Colonial roots of milk tea make it a surprising symbol for activists
When popular Thai actor Vachirawit Chivaaree posted four cityscape photos on Twitter last year with the caption “four countries,” he knew what he was doing. One of the four he listed was Hong Kong, which, as enraged Chinese nationalists were quick to point out, is not a separate country, despite its special status within China.
Pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan have come to the defense of Chivaaree, who has suffered an abuse shootout. Among their responses was a meme: cartoons of milk drinks from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand “holding hands” in solidarity against authoritarian government in all its forms.
The symbolism was clear. While the people of Southeast Asia drink their tea and coffee with milk, the Chinese prefer their oolong and other dairy-free infusions – that’s what their detractors claim.
The meme became a movement, the Milk Tea Alliance. Its members exchange advice on how to avoid Internet firewalls and avoid arrests. The group includes Hong Kongers and Taiwanese worried about the threatening shadow of the Chinese Communist Party (China sees Taiwan as a renegade province that will one day be recaptured). It also brings together Thais critical of the country’s military government and protesters in Myanmar opposing the junta’s coup in February.
Condensed milk has become a “conquering colonial commodity”
When Twitter launched a new milk tea emoji in April, the movement received a boost and popularized the milk tea meme. But the current symbolism of milk tea belies the drink’s complex past.
TThe Milk Tea Alliance takes its name from the idea that China is a nation of milk producers. Yet that “couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Miranda Brown, a historian of Chinese cuisine at the University of Michigan.
Some Chinese have mixed their tea with dairy products for centuries. In the 12th century, a poet by the name of Lu You wrote of his fondness for adding churned butter to his brew. Dutch, British and French merchants trading with China in the 17th century found the combination of tea and dairy products so delicious that they took it with them. A few centuries later, Europeans would export the concept of milk tea to their colonies.
So how did China get its reputation for rejecting milk? In the 19th and 20th centuries, most Chinese were too poor to buy milk, Brown says. Drinking milk became a symbol of progress for the Chinese Communist Party after Mao’s death. In 2006, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed that it was his “dream to provide every Chinese, especially children, with enough milk every day.”
Drinking milk has become a symbol of progress for the Chinese Communist Party
The dream deteriorated a bit in 2008 when six babies died in China and hundreds of thousands more fell ill after drinking milk contaminated with melamine, a chemical normally used in the production of plastic. The scandal and cover-up destroyed consumer confidence in the drink; more than a decade later, many affluent Chinese consumers still purchase imports from Western producers.
But milk sales in China have finally rebounded: China’s dairy market will soon be larger than that of the United States, according to Euromonitor, a market research company (India still drinks more milk than any other country) . In China, bubble tea, a Taiwanese drink containing small, fluffy tapioca balls, is now the most popular milk drink, particularly popular with young, hip city dwellers.
TThe flaws in the Milk Tea Alliance branding become even more evident when you delve deeper into the history of beer. Southeast Asia has not always been a region of milk lovers. Prior to the 20th century, it was largely dairy-free, much to the frustration of European colonialists. It was so difficult to find cow’s milk in Burma in 1900 that two British hunters reportedly milked a rhino they had just killed. Their verdict? “Very weak and very soft.”
Indian dairy farmers saw an opportunity in this imperial thirst and traveled to Southeast Asia to settle as dairy farmers. But Indian milk quickly gained a reputation for being dangerous, either because it was diluted with dirty water or because it went away when the milkmen rolled their carts under the tropical sun.
This changed at the end of the 19th century with the invention of canned condensed milk, which did not need refrigeration. In the hope of enriching themselves with new markets in the colonies, European producers, such as Nestlé, have piled up. He advertised that canned milk was nutritious, healthy and safer than the fresh product.
12th-century Chinese poet writes about adding churned butter to his brew
The ads invoked what Nestlé called “the spirit of progress”: the tin can was a new technology, a product of the machine age. Drinking condensed milk has become fashionable for Malays, Vietnamese and Burmese. In the 1930s, half of the condensed milk drunk in Malaysia was consumed in cheap, bitter black tea. Cafes were often decorated with milk cans suspended from the ceiling. Condensed milk, as one scholar put it, has become a “conquering colonial commodity.”
Some might say that the history of milk tea makes it a strange symbol for anti-authoritarian activists. Others might dismiss all doubt as a storm in a cup of bubble tea. ■
Simon willis is a freelance writer and former editor at 1843
DRAWING : MICHAEL GLENWOOD