Communi-tea: Boba is more than a drink at SoCal art show

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Boba cafes became a safe space for Asian American Pacific Islander youth in Southern California, says Juily Phun, Cal State LA professor and the exhibit’s co-curator. Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber. Photo courtesy of the Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles.

In some Southern California neighborhoods, it would be hard to miss a cafe that sells a mouthwatering treat that's become a worldwide phenomenon: boba. That's the often sweet drink loaded with dark, chewy tapioca pearls that are so large that you need to sip it with an oversized straw. 

A new exhibit at the Chinese American Museum in LA called “the boba show: history, diaspora, & a third space” explores the drink’s journey from the cassava root native to South America, to the tapioca balls in the Taiwanese confection, and back across the ocean to the United States, where has also become a symbol of identity and culture for young Asian Americans. 

Cal State LA Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies Juily Phun is the exhibit’s co-curator. She says boba helped young Asian Americans like her find a community in Southern California areas like the San Gabriel Valley. 

What is boba?

It’s just tapioca starch, water, and brown sugar. It’s boiled down and rolled up. It’s that simple.

Why is the drink called boba in some places and bubble tea in others?

The name boba versus bubble tea versus pearl tea actually tells us as much about our community and how big it is — as it does about how much the drink needs to be recognizable to a large community. 

In places where there isn't a large Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, bubble tea seems to be more popular or even pearl tea, because [the tapioca balls] look like dark pearls that you'd see in Hawaii. 

Versus here [in Southern California], where there is a large Asian American Pacific Islander community, people are so familiar with Asian languages that boba, which is actually a Cantonese name, stuck with us. There's such a large Cantonese speaking population in Southern California that boba is recognizable to people.

How does the exhibit show boba’s historical transformation? 

We wanted to tell a little bit about the history [of cassava], which is that its roots begin in the Americas, it travels around the world, and then it comes back to the Americas as something totally transformed. We wanted to highlight diaspora, because the history is about groups of people who migrated around the world. 

The [history] is very contentious, but boba comes from two different places in Taiwan that are vying for who came up with boba first. When it comes back to the United States, it’s with this drink that we see the unfolding of our [AAPI] community.

What was the first boba shop in California? 

That’s also in contention. Some say that it was first in this very humble mom-and-pop shop in Arcadia, some say it was Lollicup in Alhambra, and other people tell different stories about it. 

But, what we all know is that it arrived on the shores of Southern and Northern California at the same time that we see a growing AAPI. 

What does third space mean in the exhibit?

When we [Phun and co-curator Jason Pereira] were growing up in the 90s, there were very few places outside of the typical coffee shop that you might have [to go to]. A lot of times [the coffee shops] were very unfamiliar and in places that were unfamiliar to us. With boba, it was something that was familiar to us.

What ended up happening was that because we had such a large community in Southern California, especially in the San Gabriel Valley, that kids started going to the boba shops. Slowly, the space started to transform As more boba shops opened up, it was a safe place for [young people] to hang out, go do their homework, and go play games. 

So it became this alternative space for AAPI youth. This third space is a hybrid space, where our communities could hang out where we weren’t watched in a certain way [and] where we went to basically be us. … We were creating a space that was our own. 

What could boba’s transformation to a mainstream drink mean for the AAPI community?

It’s a big responsibility to answer that … but hopefully what it means for us is that more people are thinking about the AAPI [community] ... and that more people are actually having conversations and seeing us as part of the American fabric.

What are some pieces on display at the exhibit?

We have so many beautiful, amazing artists. We have Boone Nguyen, who has this video of his cousin on a family plot in Vietnam [who is] digging up cassava. 

We have Chriselle, who has this huge boba girl and it's full of the joyousness of youth and the vibrancy of the space. 

We have JP, Jason Pereira, who has these two murals that really tell about the history of cassava and the way it's been indigenized across the globe, the transformation of it as a foodstuff through the waterways. 

We also have Roldy Aguero Ablao … who creates this dress out of recycled boba stuff, the plastics that come from it. So it is both an invitation to add to the dress and also critiquing the ways that consumption affects us through trash and plastics. 

We come full circle from starting in the Americas, and then coming back around again, crossing over the Pacific, with these beautiful artists.



  • Juily Phun - Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies, Cal State LA


Tara Atrian