(Black)Pearls of Wisdom: Understanding resistance through the Milk Tea Alliance

Author: Bava Dharani, independent researcher

The Milk Tea Alliance (‘MTA’) movement first emerged in April 2020 when popular Thai actor Vachirawit Chivaree sent a tweet implying support for Hong Kong’s independence from China. When Chinese nationalists started harassed Chivararee on Twitter (despite Twitter being banned in China with heavy internet censorship), his fans in Thailand, along with Twitter users in Hong Kong and Taiwan, would fight back using the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance.[1] This name refers to the milk tea drunk hot in Hong Kong, the bubble tea drunk in Taiwan, and the iced milk tea drunk in Thailand. Protesters viewed Milk Tea as not only a pan-Asian symbol of democracy, but also as a symbol of resistance against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).[2]  Since then, the MTA has morphed into a larger collective including various other countries, as of now: Iran, Philippines, Myanmar, India, Tibet, Malaysia, East Turkestan, Belarus, Australia. 

Source: Twitter

The MTA is now described as an:

  1. Asian youth activist collective; 
  2. pan-democratic movement across Asia; and
  3. a collective that was spurred on by meme wars by news reporters. 

The MTA activists and accounts themselves identify as a symbol of solidarity and as a collective committed to democracy. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhang Lijian has commented on the MTA,

People who are pro-Hong Kong independence or pro-Taiwan independence often collude online, this is nothing new. Their conspiracy will never succeed.[3]

MTA has also created an offshoot called MTAGalleries, where the names and deaths in the hands of different dictatorships are recorded.[4] Recently, activists on the ground in Myanmar used it as an archive to record the deaths in the hands of the military junta. It has served as an important source of information for local activists. Simultaneously, the larger MTA accounts serve as a platform where different countries are able to further strengthen solidarity through online conversations. 

Why milk tea?

Tea has served both as a colonial commodity and as a symbol of culture in various Asian cultures. From oolong to green tea – these teas are seen as pristine symbols of culture, as concentrated and pure, devoid of sugar or any other add-ons. To add condensed or evaporated milk, to add pearl toppings is to be diluted, to be contaminated, and to deviate from the ‘original’. For example, the drinking of milk tea in countries such as Hong Kong is not just the mixing of Chinese practices of drinking black Pu’er tea and English luxuries of adding milk to black tea. It emerged from the working classes – who tapped into canned evaporated and condensed milk cans, due to fresh milk being scarce.[5]

In a similar way, the Teh Tarik (the milk tea drink popular in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore) derives its name, “pulled tea” from the way it is made. Teh Tarik is made by cooling a brew of hot tea and condensed milk through the process of pouring and “pulling” it between two cups or mugs.[6]Its origins can be traced from Indian Muslim immigrants who set up drink stalls outside rubber plantations to serve plantations workers. In fact, many variations of Asia milk tea can be attributed to working class cultures. The use of milk tea as a symbol for the MTA is intentional and strategic in highlighting that it is a movement of the masses. 

However, this Alliance has been undermined due to several factors, namely, the whimsical memes it uses, the heavy youth involvement and no clear organisational structure. I propose that the MTA is an intentional decolonial practice, which aims; to subvert the knowledge and power structures that have been transposed onto Asia. The MTA is a queer resistance structure that embodies all that is ‘unserious’ about Asia in its serious pursuits. In my making sense of ‘queer’, I choose to borrow from Dr Nour Abu-Assab’s keynote speech at ‘Queer’ Asia 2017 Conference, that defined queer as anti-categories and anti-identification.[7] She mentioned how increasingly problematic it is that to identify as a queer individual there is a need to adopt a specific lifestyle, and how this has made it an exclusionary term.  In this way, there seems to be similarities in the way queerness and resistance tend to be framed to be valid. As Dr Abu-Assad eloquently put across, we look at queerness as something that is dependent on space and time – its meaning differs across different contexts. Similarly, resistance also is dependent on space and time, where resistance morphs according to where it is, and the MTA serves as testament to this.

The starting point of discourse surrounding queerness in the space of Asia tends to start on which Asian countries still criminalise same-sex relations, and which do not. This usually invokes reactionary discourse from local elites who paint overtly romanticised versions of pre-colonial societies – who rely on the stories of bisexual kings and religious poetry written by noble classes that have strong homo-erotic undertones.[8]  Does this then mean queerness was not present among the masses? That it was not and is not thriving?

Similarly, when we frame resistance or dissent as acts that are inherently criminalised in these ‘Asian dictatorships’ hence dwindling and absent in these countries, we almost frame resistance as an impossibility. And then there is on having to theorise about this resistance from afar. Or framing resistance from these spaces as insignificant, or really studying events that happened in this region as only a specials episode in the series that is the world events. For example, in the study of the Cold War, until recent key interventions, Asia, specifically Southeast Asia was seen as ‘the playground’ of the two superpowers. When we say that resistance or queerness is absent, it is dependent on how we have defined these terms. When these definitions rely on the instruments that criminalise them for recognition and/or definition, how inclusive can they be of the masses? For example, in Singapore, queerness derives its definition from s377A of the national Criminal code, which criminalises sexual acts between two men. Now what does this mean for queer women? What does this mean for almost one million people who inhabit the country on temporary ‘work-permit’ visas? Other variations of queerness are assumed to be absent and are not spoken of, as they have not been codified.

Resistance is usually defined as a form of dissent/refusal or disruption. To laugh at authority – is it not a form of everyday resistance we all engage in. This can happen alongside different forms of resistance. On a practical level, through the MTA, Thai protestors have borrowed on the ground techniques that were employed by the Hong Kong protestors. Techniques such as the distribution of food provisions, eye masks (to protect against tear gas attacks). At the same time, in 2020, youth activists started leading dance groups to popular K-pop songs.[9]

Source: Twitter

By purposefully employing symbols such as Milk tea, and K-pop dancing, activists highlight how they are able to resist while retaining their joy and youth and vulnerability, elements that are discouraged in serious political movements. This just highlights how those in power – be it British colonizers, or Chinese encroachers – risk being ridiculed and undermined, despite their physical dominance in a region. 

To add to this, I borrow from this passage from George Orwell’s essay Shooting an Elephant (1936) where he finds that he has to shoot this elephant that ravaged a market in a town in Burma, where he was the sub-inspector of police. He writes: 

‘I perceive in this moment that when a white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow posing dummy, the conventionalised figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him…..To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.’

Was the colonial encroacher tolerated as much as he was feared? Did he have an equal propensity to be ridiculed, as he did to be feared? The MTA subverts these power structures by leaning into and constructing itself with language, symbols and activities that are whimsical, joyful and ‘unserious’. It refuses to be afraid to employ cultural tropes that may define it to be ‘un-resistance’. Now the MTA due to its fluid nature,  it trends online then it subsides, even disappears only to resurface again. I believe we should let it, let it be the joke that authoritarians do not get and are too afraid to ask to be let in on. 

[1] Devan Phillipson ‘The Milk Tea Alliance: From Internet Meme To Pan-Asian Movement’

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Please see twitter account: https://twitter.com/MTA_Museum (@MTA_Museum)

[5] Kaur, Amardeep “The Power of Milk Tea: From Pacific to Punjab” (22 July 2021, Jamhoor) (Accessed via: https://www.jamhoor.org/read/the-power-of-milk-tea-from-pacific-to-punjab)

[6] Tan, Bonny ‘Teh Tarik’ (Singapore Infopedia, 2013) (Accessed via: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2013-07-19_103055.html)

[7] Please see recording of,  Queer Asia Keynote panel, Decriminalisation and Colonial Legacies (2017) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKh27exzUWI&list=PLazIAHQ-jufDjqOyZFqk0TsqiFZT9gWoi

[8] For reference of local elites discourse, please read Tharoor, Shashi “Inglorious Empire, What the British did to India” (Hurst & Co, 2017).

[9] Please see South China Morning Post video posted on 3 November 2020 via Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCS04xIe72I