Date: November 24, 2020
By: Dai Wei Tsang
t began like any internet fight. Vachirawat “Bright” Cheeva-aree, a popular Thai actor of American and Chinese descent, liked a tweet of an image that labeled Hong Kong as a country in April 2020. Chinese netizens dug up his girlfriend’s Instagram profile, and interpreted one of her earlier posts as support for Taiwan’s independence. When they began a round of internet bullying, Bright’s Thai fans rallied to the couple’s defense, and insults soon shifted from the personal to the national. What could have been a pedestrian squabble instead evolved into geopolitical flame war across multiple social media platforms under the hashtag “Milk Tea Alliance”, with the potential to develop into a pan-Asian call for reform. How did this snowball when other hashtags died?
The origin of the term “Milk Tea Alliance” is hard to trace, but easy to explain. In Asia, tea is the social beverage. Thailand has the brightly-colored Cha Nom Yen, Taiwan is famous for boba tea, Hong Kong makes its own with silk stockings, and India’s masala chai is as spicy as it is loved. Malaysia pulls its Teh Tarik in long pours, while Xinjiang, Mongolia and Tibet make buttery versions under the names of Sut Chai, Suutei Tsai, and Cha Süma. Across East Asia and Southeast Asia, each region possesses their unique version of milk tea, and all are connected in some way by history, ethnicity, or geography.
The term has become a shorthand for an online kinship shared across borders by a young, social, and disgruntled audience in Asia. Before the term started trending, members of this audience already had much in common. They shared the same worries about steep economic competition, a cynicism against ruling elites, and memories of life under authoritarian rule. They share the same pop culture “canon” based on popular TV shows translated into different languages, and in a region where multilingualism is the norm, translate memes and news for each other. Having grown up during the social media explosion, each person also tends to own an account on different platforms, and their real-life opinions flow into their online presence. All of these factors have combined to create a powerful in-group identity that transcends national and linguistic borders. [FULL STORY]