(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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/white-rabbit-candy-china-intl-hnk/index.html How Shanghai’s White Rabbit candy became a popular snack around the world