Bubble tea in Singapore: The popular fandom of cult brands like LiHo, Koi, Xin Fu Tang, Milksha, and more

Bubble tea in Singapore: The popular fandom of cult brands like LiHo, Koi, Xin Fu Tang, Milksha, and more

Boba fever

Text: Niharika Murali

The fuss surrounding the rather simple drink, bubble tea, is a fascinating phenomenon by itself. The bubble tea mania has consumed Singapore to the extent that it has inspired gimmicks like bubble tea pancakes, beauty products and even the recent Bubble Tea Factory — a pop-up dedicated to the love of the drink. It has procured a fanbase comparable to that of any boyband. Although it may have only gained noticeable traction in Singapore over these past few years, the drink's history goes way further back. Inspired by the sight of coffee being served cold, a tea house owner in Taichung, Taiwan put his own twist on the classic milk tea with the addition of sweetened tapioca pudding (pearls) following later on by a staff member in 1987 — thus leading to the birth of the iconic bubble tea.  Five years later, the first bubble tea shop in Singapore opened its doors to the public in Marina Square — serving the beverage in fancy cocktail glasses.

The fad didn't peak until early 2000s, as more Singaporeans travelled to Taiwan and returned with an insatiable craving for the sweet treat. Shops reportedly sold 800 to 1000 cups a day. Unfortunately, just a surge in demand wasn't sufficient to keep the business alive, as fierce competition and price cuts led to the compromise of the drink's quality and eventually the death of its novelty.

The resurgence in popularity of the drink was kickstarted by the entry of renowned Taiwanese bubble tea chains into the local market. It isn't a mere coincidence that bubble tea sales peaked in 2018, the year Taiwan was named as the most popular holiday destination for Singaporeans. With the help of a little rebranding and packaging that appealed to thirsty millennials, it wasn't difficult for it to make a glorious comeback into the scene.

The humble cup of bubble tea has come a long way, evolving and giving way to variations like the wildly popular brown sugar milk and fruit teas topped with the chewiest of pearls. The rest as we all know, is history. With the trend working its way towards world domination, here are some of the dominating and emerging bubble tea chains to appease your cravings. And something tells us they are here to say. Mass appeal truly doesn't get any better than boba.


LiHo had anything but an easy launch. The move to replace Gong Cha with LiHo, a homegrown brand, was initially met with disappointment and skepticism from Gong Cha's loyal followers. Instead of putting a dampener on the brand's debut, the talk surrounding the switch provided the brand with the necessary publicity to get its name out. LiHo's unwavering quality, similar to that of Gong Cha and experimental introduction of the intriguing Cheese tea - although left the public divided, aided it in gaining a decent following over time. In fact, LiHo has become a staple in malls around Singapore.



You could say KOI brought about the resurgence of bubble tea's popularity in Singapore. Hailing from Taiwan, KOI has cemented its status as the go-to place for a cup of classic bubble milk tea — with a welcome high pearl to  drink ratio. Although it goes by the name ‘50 Lan' in Taiwan, the chain is marketed as KOI in Singapore, giving it a more contemporary vibe. It may have had its humble beginnings as a beverage and fruit juice stall, but now KOI has 55 outlets and counting, making it one of the biggest bubble tea franchises in Singapore.

The Alley

Known for their handmade Deerioca pearls, this Taiwanese beverage chain has amassed over 300 outlets around the world including Japan and USA, within five years of its operation. Their popularity could be attributed to the superior quality of their pearls over its machine-produced counterparts. The launch of The Alley Luxe, a premium concept in Orchard Cineleisure — the first of its kind in the world, is a good enough indicator of its success in Singapore.

Xing Fu Tang

When Xing Fu Tang started in 2018, it became an instant hit with the Taiwanese locals. It didnt take long before it touched down in Singapore in 2019 in Tampines' Century Square mall. What sets Xing Fu Tang apart from its competitors is its traditional way of whipping up pearls: they are stir-fried, right before your eyes, giving the chewy bubbles a distinct smoky flavour. That's not all, the indulgent Brown Sugar Boba Milk is finished off with a bruleed brown sugar top. You are assured an authentic experience as most of the ingredients such as brown sugar and tapioca starch are all directly imported from Taiwan.


Next in line is "Milkshop", marketed as "Milksha" internationally. This brand got the ultimate stamp of approval when it was voted No.1 by Taiwanese university students. Determined not to jump on the brown sugar milk tea bandwagon, Milksha places utmost importance on the quality of its ingredients. If you want to indulge in a cuppa without the guilt, get your dose of bubble tea here, devoid of preservatives or artificial additives, which explains the clear pearls instead of the familiar brownish-black ones.

Chicha San Chen

Freshly brewing teas since 1998, CHICHA San Chen's outlet in [email protected] marks its first venture outside of Taiwan and China. The tea's natural flavours and aromas are brought out using an exclusively patented Teapresso machine with more than 1000 custom settings and three-stage temperature control brewing technique. One thing's for sure, they have perfected the art of tea-making given that their Dong Ding Oolong Tea attained the Highest International Authority iTQi certification in 2017, equivalent to a Michelin three-star. Other fan-favourites include the more unconventional High Mountain Pouchong Tea with Lemon Juice and Cassia Black Tea.