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THE INITIUM
The Initium is a Hong Kong-based, Chinese-language digital media outlet that covers news, opinion, and lifestyle content directed to Chinese readers worldwide. It was founded in 2015.
People walk in a Shanghai district
Coronavirus
Lili Bai

In Shanghai, A Brewing Expat Exodus As COVID Crackdown Shows "Real" China

Not only strict rules of freedom of movement as part of Zero-COVID policy but also an increase in censorship has raised many questions for the expat population in the megacity of 26 million that had long enjoyed a kind of special status in China as a place of freedom and openness. A recent survey of foreigners in the Chinese megacity found that 48% of respondents said they would leave Shanghai within the next year.

SHANGHAI — On the seventh day of the lockdown, Félix, a French expat who has worked in Shanghai for four years, texted his boss: I want to "run,' mais je sais pas quand (but I don’t know when). A minute later, he received a reply: moi aussi (me too).

Félix had recently learned the new Mandarin word 润 (run) from social network postings of his local friends. Because its pinyin “rùn” is the same as the English word “run,” Chinese youth had begun to use it to express their wish to escape reality, either to “be freed from mundane life”, or to “run toward your future.”

For foreigners like Félix, by associating the expression “run” with the feeling of the current lockdown in Shanghai, “everything makes sense.” Félix recalled how at the end of March, the government denied rumors of an impending lockdown: “My Chinese colleagues all said, Shanghai is China’s top city, there would be no lockdown no matter what.”

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A Taiwanese soldier looks on as a helicopter rises the Taiwanese flag.
Taiwan
Shi Qingye

The War In Ukraine Should Force China To Rethink Its Taiwan Narrative

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put China's stance on Taiwan back in the spotlight. But despite shared narratives of national unity, there are key differences in how Beijing and Moscow approach territories they consider their own.

–Analysis–

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been comparisons between the Russian-Ukrainian war and China's standoff with Taiwan, with divergent views on whether the same scene would be repeated.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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The situations have similarities: Both Moscow and Beijing use the notion of “national unity” and Putin's war narrative also reflects China's theoretical dilemma on the issue of "anti-secession".

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Photo of a person walking in the streets of Shanghai with a mask during the pandemic
Coronavirus
Dan Wu

Shanghai Stakes: Why COVID In China's "Bourgeois" Capital Is A High-Risk Affair

The port city is China's most international and cosmopolitan, which helps explain the ongoing culture clash between its residents and Chinese authorities aiming to enforce a strict Zero-Covid policy of restrictions on movement and freedom.

Shanghai, a metropolis of 25 million inhabitants with a rich and colorful history, stands apart in China.

The southern port boasts the most international and cosmopolitan population on mainland China, where commercial wealth and relative personal freedom meet. The natives of Shanghai are often chided by other Chinese as the nation's "bourgeois" class.

Through the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had first spread around the world from Wuhan — another Chinese mega-city some 500 miles to the west — Shanghai had largely been spared from its effects, with local administrations being praised for “precise epidemic prevention.”

All that has changed over the past month. Both its special status and previous success in keeping the virus at bay help explain the crisis engulfing the city over the past month. With the sudden spread of the Omicron variant, a strict lockdown has been in force since March 28. And locals are pushing the limits in what is, despite local attitudes, an authoritarian regime in China.

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Photo of a gender-inclusive bathroom sign on a red door
LGBTQ Plus
The Initium

Wuhan Restroom Murder Sparks Debate Over Transgender Rights In China

China has no specific laws on transgender groups, and even the word "transgender" does not appear in any legal provisions. But the real-life issues of public bathrooms is forcing Chinese to confront the issue, especially after the murder in the city of Wuhan of a trans woman earlier this month.

On March 9, the news of the murder quickly began to circulate on Chinese social media Weibo: A transgender woman had reportedly been killed in a men’s public bathroom in a Wuhan shopping mall, in central China. After debate escalated, the trending topic banner on Weibo was quickly removed — and further discussion, banned.

The user who first posted the report claimed to have been contacted by the police, and was told that the suspect of the crime was being pursued, but no official report on the murder has thus far been released.

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Photo of a young man wearing a COVID-19 protective mask, walking in Changzhou, China, on March 19​
Coronavirus

In Rare Challenge, Chinese Youth Defy Government On COVID Lockdowns

On social media and at universities, with sarcastic videos and graffiti, young people are showing they are sick and tired of Zero COVID policies. People are still waiting to see how the Xi Jinping regime might react.

BEIJING — Since March, mainland China has experienced the largest local outbreak of COVID-19 cases since the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, in January 2020. According to the National Health Commission of China, between March 1 and 18, more than 29,000 infections have been reported in mainland China, affecting 28 provinces. Restrictions and lockdown measures were introduced in various provinces, but the “Zero COVID” policies are facing rising dissent among the population.

The concerns have largely been economic-related: A post on Weibo (China’s equivalent to Twitter) summarizes people’s complaint, “the landlord is telling me to pay the rent, the banks are telling me to repay loans, the state is telling me not to go to work, the government is telling me not to go out, the whole country is telling me to carry on, but no one is telling me where the money is supposed to come from.”

Demands for lifting measures spread across the nation via TikTok videos and social media posts, countering the tight regulations and the state’s endeavor to secure the “Zero COVID” campaign.

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​Screenshot from video of chained mother-of-eight in China
Society
Zhao Qiliu and Yi Xiaoai

Video Of Chained Woman Shines Light On China's Treatment Of Mental Illness

A recent video of a chained woman has raised the alarm of the poor treatment of the mentally ill in China. It's worse for women in rural areas, where the stigma around mental illness is high.

Just before Chinese New Year ended recently, a video went viral on China’s web. In a shabby space attached to a house in Feng County in Jiangsu Province, a woman, named Yang Mouxia, is seen wearing a thin top in the chilly weather. She has an iron chain and a lock around her neck.

The woman has a mental disorder. She is the mother of eight children and the wife of Dong Moumin. Since the exposure of Yang’s living conditions, several people online asked if she is the same person, who went by the name of Li Ying, who'd disappeared from Sichuan Province 26 years ago at the age of twelve.

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Why COVID-19 Has Made China Stronger
Coronavirus
Deng Yuwen

Why COVID-19 Has Made China Stronger

The COVID-19 outbreak has reshaped the world's emerging superpower both at home and abroad, making China emerge as a more efficient power and helping Chinese overcome their inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West.

-Analysis-

BEIJING — We are now entering the third year of the pandemic since the outbreak of COVID-19 in January 2020. During the past two years, the coronavirus has spread from China to the whole world. Not only is this pandemic a testimony of every government and social response, but it has also had an impact that goes beyond public health, especially among the major powers. To some extent, the pandemic has brought about changes in our way of life and has reshaped the world's geopolitics.

China is the original epicenter of where the virus was found, and the propagation of the infectious disease occurred at a moment when China and the United States were plainly engaged in a trade war. The Chinese government's response to the crisis has been significantly different from that of other countries.

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Photo of a woman looking at her phone in her bed
Future
Dan Wu

Taiwan's Virtual "Tuck-Me-In" Platform Shows COVID Impact On Dating Apps

Do you long for bedtime stories told remotely? Or miss the companionship a voice provides? There's an app for that, which also responds to special COVID-19 needs of dating apps that allows for more direct online communication.

TAIPEI — PlayOne is a popular app in Taiwan that provides online partners for streaming video gaming and other chat functionality. But recently the app began to offer online companionship with a new option: “Calling to sleep.”

On this particular platform, a user can select the characteristics of their ideal companion to be nearby, virtually, when bedtime arrives. A range of features can be selected, including the go-to-sleep voice and appearance of the person who is there with you remotely as you drift off to sleep. The price? One sleep buddy says that he charges about $13 per hour.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game
Society
Yip Wing Sum

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

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Taiwan To Hong Kong To L.A., Birth Of Bubble Tea Culture
food / travel
Zhang Yan,

Taiwan To Hong Kong To L.A., Birth Of Bubble Tea Culture

Originating in Taiwan, bubble tea was one of many products hard hit by the pandemic. But the internationally-beloved, tapioca-based drink isn't just any import any longer — it's an entire culture.

TAIPEI — In mid-April, a report entitled "Another Unlikely Pandemic Shortage: Boba Tea" appeared inThe New York Times. This rang alarm bells for fans of the great Taiwanese delicacy, also called bubble tea, milk tea or Zhenzhu Naicha in Mandarin Chinese. The bad news came just as the weather was warming up, the tensions brought about by COVID-19 were easing, and the food and beverage industry was hoping for a pick-up in business.

The global pandemic caused a major shortage in the supply chain of tapioca pearls, bubble tea's most important ingredient that sets it apart from other beverages. More than 90 % of tapioca starch comes from Taiwan, as the three partners of Boba Guys, a franchise chain, explained to their clients in an Instagram post.

Bubble tea shops everywhere were obliged to limit customers to one boba tea per order, hampering not just a product but a global mascot for Asian-American pride.

Cashing in on tapioca pearls

According to Alan Yu, founder of Lollicup, a restaurant chain as well a major supplier of North America's raw tapioca material, at least 20,000 stores in the U.S. specialize in this drink, and the tea is also sold in an additional 30,000 restaurants.

Even fast-food chains such as Sonic Burgers, Chilli's and Taco are Mr. Yu's clients for raw materials. They all aim to profit off boba tea which has gone far beyond the Chinese speaking diaspora to become a trendy drink among mainstream American yuppies and young people.

An immigrant from Taiwan and originally making a living in Los Angeles renting VCD and DVD Chinese films, Mr. Yu opened his first Lollicup store in 2000. Today, he is the CEO of Karat, a Nasdaq listed company and a supplier of tapioca starch as well as disposable dining ware. He even opened a "boba school," training people how to cook tapioca pearls and create boba tea with various flavors. Among his students are coffee baristas who hope to transition to this new beverage craze.

Boba tea represents a suburban, middle-class Asian American culture

Boba Guys

The Taiwanese-American immigrant history

According to Eileen Cheng-yin Chow, Associate Professor of the Practice in Chinese and Japanese Cultural Studies at Duke University, bubble tea has evolved from an identity label for Asian American youngsters into the online "Milk Tea Alliance," a group rallying young netizens from Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, and Burma to protest against authoritarianism and advocate for democracy. Even when there were numerous hate crimes against Asian in the U.S., boba tea never became a target.

Ms. Zhang Xinwei, a doctoral student at the University of Helsinki specialized in the globalization of food, believes boba tea's global popularity is closely associated with Taiwanese emigrants and capital flow.

"At first, a part of these Taiwanese emigrants went to Hong Kong and China and took along the bubble tea shops, incubating the first batch of boba tea drinkers outside Taiwan. In turn, when their clients traveled abroad, they took this daily consumption habit with them to new destinations."

Through the tea, they started to ponder their identity.

After the 1960s, a batch of Taiwanese immigrants landed in the U.S. and earned their living in the catering business. Once a "hidden menu" item in Taiwanese-American run restaurants, bubble tea was only ordered by Taiwanese clients already familiar with the beverage. It was particularly popular with their offspring who introduced it to their peers, spreading the trend.

"Through the tea, they started to ponder their identity, to create songs and music videos about bubble tea. Just like Kpop, sushi, and Japanese ramen, boba tea also flowed into North America, becoming a cultural trend around the year 2000," Ms. Zhang commented.

Like bars for minors

Considered "bars for minors," boba tea stores are places where youngsters from migrant families can gather with their friends after school.

"Most of the boba tea stores' customers are teenagers. After going to SAT classes, they meet up there. This a place to cram for exams, but also a place for dates and being broken-hearted. In this space, they can feel a sense of belonging, which surpasses the meaning of milk tea itself as a drink," says Clarissa Wei, a foodie writer born in Taiwan but who grew up in Los Angeles.

Born in the U.S. in 1984, Philip Wang is a second-generation Taiwanese American and a renowned YouTuber who creates original Asian-themed films. He still recalls his teenage years when the term "Asian pride" was on everyone's lips. It was the moment when Japanese animation and South Korean pop music entered the U.S., and Asian Americans were increasingly asserting themselves as the export of Asian pop culture confronted a mainstream American culture that was overwhelmingly white.

"For the first time, boba tea made me feel there was a cultural product belonging to the Asian community in the United States", said Philip Wang, who also owns a tapioca tea shop called the Bopomofo Cafe.

People queue up in front of a bubble tea shop in Hong Kong

Marc Fernandes/NurPhoto/ZUMA

More like Starbucks than chop suey

Xinwei recalls the theory of Krishnendu Ray, associate Professor of Nutrition & Food Studies at New York University: To a certain extent, the price of foreign food overseas is a reflection of the combined economic, military, and immigrant strength of the origin country. The higher the food's price, the higher the group's socioeconomic status.

Compared with the chop suey dishes associated with Chinatown's working class culture, boba tea represents a suburban, middle-class Asian-American culture. To Professor Eileen Cheng-yin Chow, bubble tea's trajectory in the U.S. "resembles that of Starbucks, not that of Chinese food".

Today, numerous tapioca tea stores are run by second generation Taiwanese or Chinese Americans who were born and grew up in the U.S.. Take Andrew Chau and Bin Chen, founders of the Boba Guys, as an example. As Americans, they leverage English dietary jargon and completely fit in with American middle-class consumption habits, such as using organic milk or vegetable milk. While the chain still relies on imports of cassava starch, the ingredient for making tapioca pearls, they possess their own manufacturing facilities.

More than just Asian eateries, these are American stores selling Asian food, continuing America's melting pot tradition in step with their personal trajectory.

In 2017, a New York Times article, "Bubble Tea Purveyors Continue to Grow along with Drink's Popularity," used words like "exotic" and "Far-East" to describe the tapioca tea drink, causing a huge uproar. Readers criticized the author, saying his concept of the beverage was stuck in the last century. A few days later,The New York Times was obliged to publish an apology piece titled, "Our Readers Call Us Out Over Bubble Tea. They Are Right," admitting that bubble tea has long been part of American culture.

Xinwei confirmed boba tea's heritage in a study where European consumers defined the tapioca drink as a beverage enjoyed by North American foodies, even if some of the subjects knew it originated in Asia. Xinwei finds the drink's American-ness crucial to its success: "If boba tea hadn't gone to the U.S. and become a part of the young American lifestyle first, I don't think it would have been globalized so quickly."

Hong Kong's International Food Scene Gets Political
Society
Lee Chiu Hing

Hong Kong's International Food Scene Gets Political

In its diaspora around Asia and the rest of the world, Hong Kong's identity is closely tied to its food and tea. Now with the pressures from the mainland, the stakes are suddenly multiplied.

HONG KONG — Hot wonton soup, a cup of milk tea: These are among the dishes Hong Kongers around the world long for when they want a taste of their hometown. Leaving Hong Kong is a challenge for some, less so for others, but virtually all expats eventually grow tired of dishes from their adopted countries, and seek familiar flavors. But more and more, this desire has developed beyond nostalgia to become a question with much more at stake.

The evolution of Hong Kong food culture has, in retrospect, become a construction of the city's identity, from the internationalized food scene in the early years of the last century, which gathered regional cuisines from around the globe, to exportation, which has brought about a new generation of Hon Kong-style tea restaurants in China, Taiwan and even Japan.

The challenges to Hong Kong's independence, and even its possible disappearance, is evident to all. In light of that risk, the reconstruction of this national identity through the new international trend of Hong Kong cuisine is its own story.

An international culinary republic

Over the past few decades, when you walk into a Hong Kong bistro, the names of the dishes are as varied as a map of the world. The massive entry of foreign dishes into a city reflects the process of establishing a kind of culinary republic, from the gathering of northern and southern cuisines to the construction of an internationalized metropolis.

With the Chinese diasporas coming to Hong Kong over the last century, local dishes were a way of citing different provinces and cities of China: Fujian fried rice, Zhenjiang pork ribs, Yangzhou fried rice, Beijing stuffed duck, Shunde double-skinned milk.

Russian shredded beef tenderloin with rice, Swiss chicken wings, baked Portuguese chicken

That's how Hong Kong came to be the most open place in Asia for absorbing international food culture. In addition to the names of local Chinese food, there was also a range of more far-flung flavors. The gourmet mixing testified to Hong Kong's position as the springboard for Chinese to leave the country and as the center of the Chinese immigrant community in Southeast Asia.

Needless to say, there are now more "Hong Kong-style international" flavors that even people from those countries say they have never tasted: Russian shredded beef tenderloin with rice, Swiss chicken wings, baked Portuguese chicken with rice and Kagoshima pork cartilage. (Another famous dish, German salted pork knuckles, does have a real origin).

People queue up in front of a bubble tea shop in Kennedy Town, western Hong Kong — Photo: Marc Fernandes/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Becoming a cosmopolitan food capital

Through the internationalization of homemade food, a collective awareness of the vitality and direction of the city sprouted before it was truly internationalized. Whether it was due to the movement of people bringing in exotic cuisines or their quest for virtual globalization (actively inventing international foods to make themselves appear international), the result was the same: Hong Kong has since, literally step by step, become a cosmopolitan food capital, and has marked its culinary traditions on the world food map.

To see how the dual effects further shape Hong Kong's culinary characteristics, we can take the example of its most famous output — Hong Kong milk tea. It is an exotic product; it was first introduced into the British diet, and at the height of the British colonial era, Sri Lankan black tea, accompanied by milk, was traditionally served for breakfast or afternoon tea.

But the Hong Kong version is an easy replica of this foreign drink. Although it will not be called English milk tea (exotic enough), its foreign nature is actually the same. The localization process of Hong Kong milk tea to English black tea is done through a simplified pragmatism; that is, the milk is directly washed into the black tea, creating a taste of kitchen mastery but also enhancing the efficiency of the drink.

With the milk tea story becoming a Hong Kong story of its own, Hong Kong tea restaurants have been expanding across China as well as the world. It is worth noticing that, even with the challenge and reshape of Hong Kong's identity, Hong Kong restaurants are becoming a trend in mainland China. But it is more of a reconstruction of nostalgic Hong Kong aesthetics being imagined by mainlanders, associated with Hong Kong TV series from the '80s and '90s that fascinated Chinese audiences and eventually became part of their zeitgeist.

Can this preserve Hong Kong's DNA?

The development of this situation is of course highly ironic, as the old Hong Kong customs and identity are now suffocated in the "real Hong Kong," facing extinction or exile, and those TV shows are also drifting away from Hong Kongers; it is surprisingly transformed to survive in the mainland, in another form.

How much of this is the preservation of Hong Kong's DNA? It is hard to say, but it does reconstruct Hong Kong — or at least an illusionary "Hong Kong" — full of misinterpretations. Those tea restaurants are just symbols and replicas from second-hand texts, especially the cafeteria in film and television, but completely ignoring the development of Hong Kong's story over the years.

A political storm brewing

Another recent trend of Hong Kong tea restaurants elsewhere is related to the political clashes of recent years, making Hong Kong food a calling card for exiles in the diaspora. More than just food suppliers, from Japan to Taiwan, the yellow-labeled (which indicate resistance) tea restaurants are political statements promoting Hong Kong's sovereignty. With new immigrants and those abroad dining in these establishments and continuing their discussions on Hong Kong, the meeting places are endeavoring to preserve Hong Kong's identity, and to witness the continuing social movements.

Chinese and Hong Kongers clash over food and politics.

In Japan, with its culture of discreteness and privacy, it is hard to tell whether the tea restaurants are "yellow" or not; while the millions of Chinese immigrants would also clash with the Hong Kongers due to their different views, either on food or on politics. The situation is better in Taiwan, but Hong Kongers are also teaming up to defend their cultural output, with the recent case of Hong Kong communities rejecting Taiwan bakeries for naming a pastry "pineapple bun," as the authentic ones are only Hong Kong products.

Nevertheless, for Hong Kong food itself, it is both actual nourishment, the life-sustaining element, and also an identity, maintaining the collective Hong Kong experience throughout the world. The diaspora tea restaurants might even be called monuments, as they are the locales that reunite the scattered people and memories, passing on the experience and knowledge of an era in Hong Kong through taste, both in visual language and rituals. But of course, no matter their missions and stances, as essentially economic entities, their food only holds power if it is delicious.