If you rank Chinese milk tea brands by the number of stores, one top place on the list must belong to Auntie Milk Tea shops that has sprung up across the country with its trademark red glutinous rice milk tea. However, most of them are the copycats of the only real “Auntie”: Auntie Bian Milk Tea.
Sitting at Huoshan Road of North Bund, Shanghai, the small store first showed up on No.69, then moved to No.88 across the street, and later finally settled down on No. 41. For more than 20 years, Auntie Bian Milk Tea offers a dozen kinds of sweet soup and snacks. Here, you can have a cup of mungbean soup that reminds you of the one your mom made, or try some bubble tea that taste a bit like milk powder and sweet thick soup with fruit, a flavor that many Shanghainese feel familiar. You can also quench your thirst in summer by glugging a cup of icy plum juice, or warm yourself in winter with the original and most popular red glutinous rice milk tea.
Now in her sixties, the founder Bian Genqin continues to boil the liquid that reminds many Shanghainese of their home, and keeps writing a sweet milk tea story in the city that she started at a young age.
In 1990s, when Shanghai went through industry restructure, millions of workers were laid off and even senior managers from state-owned companies joined the army of unemployed. In 1992, Bian Genqin came back from a farming productive term in Chongming and failed to get a job.
“Everyone was unemployed and layoffs became a reality. We had to face it and find a way out.” As she helped her mum with cooking when she was a little girl and learnt some good cooking skills, her family advised her to set up a small soup stall. Though she felt quite timid, the 30-year-old Bian Genqin still carried on the tough business to earn a living, and became what everyone called “Auntie Bian”.
Back then, she set up her stall almost every day, come rain or shine. On drizzling days, she ladled out soup while holding an umbrella. But on pouring wet days, she couldn’t yet didn’t have to go out, as those little gluttons would knock her door after school, asking for sweet soup.
“I wanted to make something different and special.” said Bian. She changed the recipe for the traditional mungbean soup and made it her top-selling product. She recalled, “I remember we could buy mungbean soup near the Sixth Hospital when we were little, and I was only allowed to have one when I was ill. It tasted great with glutinous rice. As all stores on this street sold mungbean soup with coix seed, I decided to sell mungbean soup with glutinous rice to make mine different.”
After 2000, ‘Old Uncle and His Children’, a comic TV series, made Taiwan bubble tea known to the general public. Following the trend, Auntie Bian put bubble tea in her menu and mulled over how to make a different version. She decided to combine bubble tea with red glutinous rice, her trademark ingredient. She washed, dried and steamed selected high-quality black rice to make red glutinous rice and let them cool down, making them taste like having a mouthful of water. Every time Auntie Bian serves a new customer with red glutinous rice milk tea, she makes sure the drink is warm, not too hot nor too cold.
Though recent milk tea drinks are mostly made of fresh milk, she still uses milk powder to make fresh base with a flavor that Shanghainese love but is not that popular in the market. Old-school shaved ice hardly found elsewhere is also available here. Though the mungbean ice previously put in beer glasses is now placed in one-liter plastic cup, and the price of fresh milk tea increased from 1 yuan to 11 yuan, something here remains unchanged: the generosity of Auntie Bian when she ladles out plentiful ingredients, the action of shaking the drink after she seals it, and the warm reminder from her before you savor the delicacy.
Auntie Bian Milk Tea once ‘disappeared’ for half a year as her store was taken back by the landlord, and reopened after the Spring Festival in 2019. She shared with us that, when they were out of business, she received phone calls saying “Where are you, auntie?” and “How are you, auntie?” from many young people who grow up with her milk tea. “I was visited by many people who like me. I missed them too, so I found another store and carried on until today.”
As she spends most of her time in the store, Auntie Bian almost knows all of the frequent customers and what they normally order. She can recognize the customer before he gets close, and when he arrives, she may ask something like “Mungbean ice with glutinous rice as usual?”, while pouring mungbean soup in a new cup.
Auntie Bian keeps every afternoon free and rides on her red motorbike with bags of milk tea, driving past office buildings nearby to deliver the drink to those young people who enjoyed the unchanged flavor from school to workplace. They can just get fresh and warm milk tea with a phone call or a WeChat message requiring specific flavor and delivering time. “Many girls and boys are very considerate. They asked me not to go upstairs, and waited for me in advance downstairs”.
With nearly 30 years gone by, a newborn grows up to start working, and those young girls and boys who used to visit the store while carrying schoolbags have been married, and some even have given birth to the next generation. Those who can’t forget the flavor visit the store with their children. “Did you say hello to this nice lady? Auntie, two cups of red glutinous rice milk tea, takeaway.”
Another old lady waiting for the order on a scooter shared with us how happy she was that her granddaughter came for dinner, and how close she was with Auntie Bian. “My daughter used to drink this milk tea during pregnancy, and my granddaughter also sticks to this flavor. She just got her Gaokao result and visited me for dinner. She asked me to treat her with milk tea, so I drove here to get her one.” she said.
In recent years, the massive coverage on Auntie Bian by self media has brought customers from other provinces. During our two visits, we met two young girls from Northeastern China, a couple who changed their flight just for the drink, and a young man from Nanjing who returned to the store by the chance of 2020 China International Railway Conference for Urban & Intercity Transit held in Shanghai.
Just have a look at how tea drinks develop to a popular business, we can tell the milk tea industry gets benefits from those “pioneers”. The existing smart milk tea production line driven by manpower and technology is developed from the large pot to keep milk tea and sweet soup warm, with which milk tea sellers stood near the entrance of lane to earn a living. It was at the time that Auntie Bian developed a femoral head problem.
“Nowadays, many milk tea sellers complain it is a tough job, but I can’t agree at all.” She recalls the heavy green pot she used to carry, which got even heavier with red glutinous rice. Though she was a young girl, she supported the pot with her belly, a smart way to carry the pot with less energy, to carry a pot just by herself. But she said, “I can’t do it anymore. I struggle to carry a lighter plumbum pot full of ingredients.”
Though a rented store makes her work a bit easier, it is still tough enough. Auntie Bian runs her business almost every day, and her longest vacation in a year is the ten days around the Spring Festival. For the rest of the year, she wakes up at 5 or 6 a.m. to make fresh ingredients, be it toppings like red glutinous rice, rice balls, white glutinous rice and sweet potato balls, or drink bases like mungbean soup, milk tea and coffee. Around noon, she moves newly- boiled, streaming ingredients from her kitchen to the store to replenish ingredients after morning business. On a good day, Auntie Bian can sell 2,000 cups of drink a day.
Auntie Bian told us that, when she was younger, her mother used to peel fruit to help out. Later, she recruited an hourly employee to share some necessary procedures. Now, some of her family sometimes come to look after her business.
“Sweet! This street smells so sweet!” An old lady complimented as she stopped on her way home. “You can come here when you are free to enjoy the smell.” Replied Auntie Bian. This old lady said she was “born with a silver spoon in her mouth” and took bird nests as sweet drinks when she was young. Since she was diagnosed with diabetes when she got older, she can no longer eat anything sweet and all she can do is to smell the sweet fragrance. In this way, Auntie Bian’s store becomes a place she would frequently visit on her way.
A few neighbors mentioned the news that Tilanqiao community might be removed soon, and they joked that “Auntie Bian wouldn’t be affected as she can open another store”, just as she had done before. But Auntie Bian gave an unexpected reply, “I would quit if the community is removed. I am no longer young, and I don’t think I will find a new store to restart the business.”
Even so, Auntie Bian is still in her full passion. When she helps to move ingredients around noon, she sometimes talks to passers-by, “If I can’t even carry this, I should just quit, shouldn’t I?” When she rides on her way to deliver milk tea in the afternoon, the sunglasses and helmet make her look no less fashionable and energetic. When she hands out drinks, you can hear her loud voice in Shanghai dialect, “You are welcome! See you again!