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

Within weeks of adding it to the rotating lineup at her Los Angeles boutique, Wanderlust Creamery, visitors were about as enthusiastic as she was.

But when Borlongan posted a photo of an ice cream cone wrapped in White Rabbit-branded paper, word spread quickly on social media. The candy, first made in Shanghai in the 1940s, is known for its iconic red-white-blue wrapper and loved by children across China. And when the Chinese started emigrating all over the world, their love for creamy white sweets went with them.

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

Since then, White Rabbit has been a mainstay in Wanderlust’s ice cream range and is regularly sold in their online store.

But the story of a successful ice cream goes far beyond taste: it’s about the Chinese diaspora, the power of nostalgia, and adorable, eye-catching branding.

Two White Rabbit Cones from Wanderlust Creamery.

Courtesy of Wanderlust Creamery

Made in China

White Rabbit’s origins can be traced back to a now-defunct company called 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.

Originally, the candies had an image of Mickey Mouse on their wrappers – perfect to appeal to children. But as Chinese national pride skyrocketed and it became less fashionable to use Western imagery, the company changed its name and put a cartoon rabbit on the packaging instead.

Enter da bay you. In Mandarin: big white rabbit.

The mix of colorful, easy-to-spot packaging and the sweet, milky taste proved to be a winner. Children from Beijing to Hong Kong have grown up with the candy, and it has also become a national symbol of the country – most famously, US President Richard Nixon received it during his historic visit to China. in 1972.

White Rabbit succeeded as a symbol of China that had no connection to politics or controversy – a form of culinary diplomacy.

As for the flavor? The creamy consistency comes from real milk and there is a piece of edible rice paper between the candy and the wrapper to prevent it from melting.

Over the years, White Rabbit has tried other flavors, including kidney beans and peanuts. But it’s the original version that has the most nostalgia.

Some North Americans compare the size, texture and consistency of White Rabbit to that of Tootsie Rolls.

Some North Americans compare the size, texture and consistency of White Rabbit to that of Tootsie Rolls.

CNN/Maggie Hiufu Wong

CNN contacted Guan Sheng Yuan, but the company would not comment on its product.

However, the candy’s popularity can be easily seen in the enthusiastic market response to all things White Rabbit.

The White Rabbit brand has amassed a devoted following among the new generation who have gone above and beyond for their various flavored candies.

When she 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. An additional 10,000 sets of lip balm sold out within three hours when sales opened the next day.

A new generation

Some of the kids who grew up munching on White Rabbit candy are now artists, chefs and entrepreneurs doing their part to scale the brand.

“I did (growing up with White Rabbit). During my childhood, the variety of candy was not very rich, White Rabbit candy was very popular, even a little extravagant,” says Li Xiang, founder of X+ Living. and chief designer of the recently opened the White Rabbit Flagship store in Shanghai.

“It sweetened the childhood of many people.”

Growing up in Harbin, northern China, Li recalls White Rabbit being closely tied to the festivities in China – a luxurious gift for children as a special reward. But what inspires Li the most is the evolution of the brand’s business philosophy.

“As the modern company grows, their business philosophy also changes, such as collaborating with other brands, opening pop-up stores, selling merchandise, and opening their first flagship store,” Li says. .

A shot of the interior of White Rabbit's flagship store.

A shot of the interior of White Rabbit’s flagship store.

Chao Feng

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

Located in Shanghai’s new JKS Arts and Culture Center, it looks more like a futuristic playground than a candy store.

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

“We hope that when customers enter the space, they will not only be impressed by the art installations, but also can feel the spirit of the brand,” Li said.

Controversy and change

But White Rabbit’s 63-year history hasn’t been purely soft and smooth.

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

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

White Rabbit maker Guan Sheng Yuan, however, suggested that the tests may have used counterfeit candies instead of genuine ones.

He also hired an independent international testing company to inspect samples of their candies to prove that no toxic substances were found before the freeze lifted on White Rabbit Candies.

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

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

Chao Feng

Courting the global audience

By collaborating creatively with different brands, the candy has not only regained lost ground, but has become even more popular with global audiences in recent years, with reports claiming that the brand exports its candy to over 40 countries across the world.

Meanwhile, White Rabbit is regularly recognized as an inspiration for food products and branded items.

In Hong Kong alone, there are several iterations of White Rabbit goodies. Baked Indulgence, a baked goods store run by two sisters, has a White Rabbit-esque cookie for sale, and an ice cream stand near the bustling Central Piers has a popular White Rabbit flavor.
Trendy New York store Chop Suey Club is selling socks with the White Rabbit logo on them, while parents can pass on their fandom to the next generation with Wee Bean’s candy-print jumpsuit.

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

But the company itself doesn’t always see these items in a positive light. There is often a gray area where companies or designers create products inspired by the famous brand but without its endorsement.

In 2021, Bright Dairy & Food Co – which held the official rights to produce White Rabbit dairy products – sued two companies in China for creating an unlicensed version of flavored powdered milk and milk tea. White Rabbit. Bright Dairy & Food Co won the lawsuit and received a payment of $39,000.
There are also debates surrounding Wanderlust’s White Rabbit ice cream.
While Guan Sheng Yuan said the ice cream shop did not secure the rights to sell White Rabbit ice cream with its brand, this was also pointed out on local news sites. that the ice cream shop serves White Rabbit ice cream in a regular cone in the store, unlike the photo Borlongan shared online.
As an official from Bright Dairy & Food Co said in an interview with local media, “(seeing) these age-old Shanghainese brands frequently becoming trending items overseas has 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 favorite childhood flavors like ube (purple sweet potato).

“I believe there’s such a demand now for more than the Eurocentric appeal of flavors,” 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 has been organic, these days the bunny logo seems to get as much attention as the actual flavor of the candy.