How Shanghai’s White Rabbit candy became a popular snack around the world

(CNN) — When ice cream maker Adrienne Borlongan first experimented with a White Rabbit flavor, she thought it tasted like “cheap vanilla.”

A few weeks after adding it to the rotating inventory at her Los Angeles store, Wanderlust Creamery, visitors were about as excited as she was.

But when Borlongan posted a photo of an ice cream cone wrapped in White Rabbit brand paper, word quickly spread on social media. Known for its iconic red, white and blue packaging, the candy, first made in Shanghai in the 1940s, is loved by children across China. And as the Chinese began to migrate around the world, their love for the white, creamy sweets went with them.

Shortly after Borlongan posted this photo, people from all over California drove to Wanderlust. And that’s when she realized that she had a phenomenon on her hands.

Since then, White Rabbit has been an integral part of Wanderlust’s ice cream range and regularly sells out in its web shop.

But the story of a best-selling ice cream is about far more than just taste — it’s about the Chinese diaspora, the power of nostalgia, and adorable, eye-catching branding.

White Rabbit Ice Cream Wanderlust Creamery

Two cones of White Rabbit from Wanderlust Creamery.

Courtesy of Wanderlust Creamery

Made in China

White Rabbit’s origins date back to a now-defunct company called the ABC Company, founded in Shanghai in 1943. It was later sold to the state-owned Guan Sheng Yuan Food Group, which owns it to this day.

The candies originally had a picture of Mickey Mouse on their packaging – perfect for appealing to children. But as Chinese national pride rose and it became less fashionable to use Western imagery, the company changed its branding, putting a cartoon rabbit on the packaging instead.

Input there bai tu. In Mandarin: big white rabbit.

The mix of colourful, easy-to-recognize packaging and the sweet milk flavor proved to be the winner. Children from Beijing to Hong Kong grew up eating the sweets, and they’ve also become a national symbol of the country — most famously, US President Richard Nixon was given some when he made his historical visit to China 1972

White Rabbit was a successful symbol of China that had no ties to politics or controversy – a form of culinary diplomacy.

As for the taste? The creamy texture comes from real milk, and there’s an edible piece of rice paper between the candy and the wrapper to prevent it from melting.

Over the years, White Rabbit tried other flavors, including red bean and peanut. But it’s the original version that has the most nostalgia associated with it.

Some North Americans compare White Rabbit's size, texture, and consistency to Tootsie Rolls.

Some North Americans compare White Rabbit’s size, texture, and consistency to Tootsie Rolls.

CNN/Maggie Hiufu Wong

CNN reached out to Guan Sheng Yuan, but the company declined to comment on its product.

However, the candy’s popularity is easily gauged by the market’s enthusiastic response to all things White Rabbit.

The White Rabbit brand has amassed a loyal following among the newer generation that has expanded beyond their various flavored candies.

When it partnered with a local beauty brand to sell White Rabbit-inspired lip balms online in 2018, the first batch of 920 products sold out in half a minute. Another 10,000 sets of lip balm sold out in three hours when the sale opened the next day.

A new generation

Some of the kids who grew up eating White Rabbit candy are now artists, chefs and entrepreneurs who play their part in the development of the brand.

“I grew up with White Rabbit. In my childhood, the choice of candy was not very rich, the White Rabbit candy was very popular, even a little extravagant,” says Li Xiang, founder of X+ living and chief designer of the recently opened White Rabbit flagship store in Shanghai.

“It sweetened the childhood of many people.”

Growing up in Harbin in northern China, Li recalls that White Rabbit was closely associated with festivals in China – a luxurious gift for children as a special treat. But what inspires Li most is the brand’s evolving business philosophy.

“With the development of modern business, their business philosophy is also developing, such as collaborating with other brands, opening pop-up stores, selling goods, and opening their first flagship store,” says Li.

An interior shot of the White Rabbit flagship store.

An interior shot of the White Rabbit flagship store.

Shao Feng

The brand’s modern identity is reflected in the establishment of its first permanent flagship store, which also sells White Rabbit-themed merchandise such as hand lotions, clothing and umbrellas.

Located in Shanghai’s new arts and culture hub, JKS, it feels more like a futuristic playground than a candy store.

Greeted by a white, 3D-printed art installation – inspired by the flow of milk – that winds through the 200 square meter space, visitors experience a whimsical feeling of “falling down a rabbit hole”.

“We hope that when customers enter the room, they will not only be impressed by the artistic installations, but also feel the spirit of the brand,” says Li.

dispute and change

But White Rabbit’s 63-year history wasn’t all sweet and smooth.

In 2007, a White Rabbit candy recall order was issued in the Philippines and Indonesia when traces of formaldehyde were detected in some packaged food products from China, including White Rabbit.

Some foods, like fruit and milk, naturally contain a small amount of formaldehyde, but consuming large amounts can cause poisoning, leading to symptoms like headaches and vomiting.

However, White Rabbit maker Guan Sheng Yuan suggested the testing may have used counterfeit candies instead of the real ones.

It also hired an international independent testing company to inspect samples of its candies to prove no toxic substances were found before the White Rabbit candies were unfrozen.

The white, wavy interior of the Shanghai White Rabbit Store was inspired by the milk in the candy.

The white, wavy interior of the Shanghai White Rabbit Store was inspired by the milk in the candy.

Shao Feng

Advertise to a global audience

Through creative collaborations with various brands, the candies have not only regained lost ground, but have become even more popular with global audiences in recent years, with the brand reportedly exporting its candies to more than 40 countries around the world.

Meanwhile, White Rabbit is regularly cited as an inspiration for food and branded goods.

There are several iterations of White Rabbit goodies in Hong Kong alone. Baked Indulgence, a bakery shop run by two sisters, has one White rabbit-style biscuit for sale and an ice cream stand near the busy Central Piers has a popular White Rabbit flavor.
Trendy store in New York City Chop Suey Club sells socks with the White Rabbit logo on them, while parents can pass their fan base on to the next generation with Wee Bean’s Candy printed romper.

Meanwhile, online portals like Etsy and Society6, where artisans can sell their products directly to consumers, offer dozens of White Rabbit pillowcases, T-shirts, and other crafts.

But the company itself does not always see these points positively. There is often a gray area where companies or designers create products inspired by the famous brand but without their endorsement.

2021, Bright Dairy & Food Co — which had the official rights to manufacture White Rabbit milk products — filed a lawsuit against two companies in China for manufacturing an unlicensed version of White Rabbit-flavored milk and milk tea powder. Bright Dairy & Food Co won the case and received a $39,000 payment.
There are also debates around the White Rabbit ice cream from Wanderlust.
While Guan Sheng Yuan stated that the ice cream parlor was not granted the rights to sell White Rabbit ice cream with their branding, it did reported on local news sites that the ice cream shop serves White Rabbit ice cream in a plain cone, contrary to the photo Borlongan shared online.
As a manager Bright Dairy & Food Co said in an interview with local media, “[Seeing]these time-honoured Shanghai brands often becoming trend items overseas inspired us to go global faster.”

Borlongan, who was raised in California by Filipino parents, knows the power of food in the Asian diaspora and regularly experiments with her own childhood favorite flavors like ube (purple yam).

“I think there’s such a huge demand now for flavors that aren’t just Eurocentric,” she says, citing tamarind and green tea as flavors that have gone from “ethnic” to mainstream in the United States over the past decade.

While White Rabbit’s international success can be attributed to organic, the rabbit logo seems to be attracting as much attention these days as the actual flavor of the candy. How Shanghai’s White Rabbit candy became a popular snack around the world

Charles Jones

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