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Five years ago, the greatest soft- drink flop since New Coke appeared on store shelves across North America. Orbitz, the child of the Clearly Canadian Beverage Corporation, was a concoction of sweet liquid and colored, globular gelatin balls, packaged in a bottle shaped like a lava lamp. The marketing campaign left much to be desired. ("Set gravity aside and prepare to embark on a tour into the bowels of the Orbiterium," declared the Web site's home page.) But there was a greater obstacle to its success, because North Americans had trouble understanding why anyone would want slimy balls in a drink. The Beverage Network, a Web site aimed at the soft-drink industry, summed up the public's reaction to the "drink-with-bits" idea in its review of Orbitz's Vanilla Orange variety: "Atrocious," it wrote. " It is really impossible to enjoy a beverage that has balls floating in it. Stay away from this beverage." Orbitz was discontinued in 1998, less than a year after its launch. Most who encountered it dismissed it as the product of a marketing department not ahead of its time, but rather completely out of touch with reality. In truth, the folks at Clearly Canadian were not as hair-brained as they seemed. Over in Asia something was going on with beverages featuring gelatinous pieces over in Asia -- there, new shops and stands were spreading like wildfire, serving a drink sometimes called "boba tea" or "tapioca milk tea," but usually named "bubble tea." Of course, bubble tea shops are now ubiquitous in major North American cities. In the seven-block radius that surrounds Vancouver's Asiatown, there are no fewer than 17 bubble tea shops. And that's not counting the bubble tea outlets in the rest of the city, not to mention the many stalls found in suburban malls across Canada. These outlets, and the colorful fat strawed drinks they serve, have become part of the fabric of our cities. The positive reaction bubble tea has received in Canada, after the bust of Orbitz, is a tribute to the value of timing in the marketing.

"Perfection, a perfect party in a cup," wrote Toronto's Eye magazine in October, 2000. "What's not to like about sweet milky tea, exotic flavor shots and the cluster of little tapioca balls -- or "pearls" -- waiting like sunken treasure at the bottom of each plastic cup?" In some ways, bubble tea is the quintessential Asian fad, all bright colors and crazy shapes in hundreds of different combinations -- almost like a Pokemon you can eat. You start with black or green tea, add one of dozens of flavor powders (pineapple, pomegranate, sesame, the list is endless). You can have it with milk or without, ice it, shake it up, and serve as is, or with tapioca balls or coconut-jelly squares at the bottom. As with most made-in-Asia trends being sold to North America, the introductory pitch went something like: "It's new! It's Asian! It's cool! Have one! You'll see!" But unlike many of the Asian fads that have reached North America, this unlikely product, which hundreds of thousands of Canadians have tried by now, has some staying power. Bubble tea remains one of the more mysterious addictions we consume, its provenance mostly unknown, yet no doubt wondered about by most who buy it. Now that North America has been pursuaded to try a drink you can eat, the question is who came up with this thing in the first place? The beverage has been around for a few years, having coasted past the realm of fad into that of the longer-lasting trend, so it's a story worth looking into. And it's one that begins across the sea, in the kitchen of a sweet-toothed, "mad-scientist" tea shop owner in the Taiwanese city of Taichung. His name is Liu Han-Chieh Throughout Asia, there is a long tradition of what the Chinese call QQ drinks, "QQ" being an onomatopoeia for "chew-chew." The Vietnamese, for example, have a love of fruit-and-jelly dessert drinks. Filipino children have long enjoyed sago, a sweet drink with tapioca in the bottom. Asia is big on the party-in-your-mouth concept. Go ahead: Mix any chewy, sweet entity with any drink you can find. What's your reaction?

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Apparently we had reached a great height in the atmosphere, for the sky was a dead black and there a stars.