AN OPEN LETTER TO THE FOUNDERS OF "THE MAHJONG LINE"
For many people like me, mahjong is more than just a game.
“On a quest to purchase her first Mahjong set, Kate discovered that the artwork of the traditional tiles, while beautiful, was all the same – and did not reflect the fun that was had when playing with her friends. And nothing came close to mirroring her style and personality.” (The Mahjong Line Archive)
The page has since been replaced with an apology letter. Below is my open letter to the three founders in response to their apology. The views expressed in this letter are those of the author and the author alone.
Dear Annie, Kate, and Bianca,
As the founders behind The Mahjong Line, you must have had quite a week. By now, you do not need me to tell you why the language and way you went about selling your mahjong sets was appropriative instead of appreciative – your recent social media post and updated language on your website indicate you are aware of this already. Let me be clear; I stand with those who were rightfully hurt by your words and actions. But I want to take you at your word when you say you started with pure intentions, and that your goal was to combine your love for the game while also helping to introduce it to new players. For what it is worth, up until this week I did not even know that there was an American variant of mahjong, with Jokers, Charlestons, and Pauses, instead of Pung, Gong, and Sheung - so you’ve accomplished part of your mission just by introducing it to me. Instead, I would like to share with you my own story about mahjong, and what the game has meant to me.
For what it is worth, up until this week I did not even know that there was an American variant of mahjong, with Jokers, Charlestons, and Pauses, instead of Pung, Gong, and Sheung - so you’ve accomplished part of your mission just by introducing it to me.
I am a second-generation, Hong Kong Chinese American born and raised in Los Angeles. When I was growing up, mahjong was a constant presence at family gatherings. It didn’t matter why we were gathering; at some point in the evening someone would inevitably pull out a set and the adults would get settled in to play. Because of the gambling aspect of the game, we children did not play – our job was to watch the adults play and get them tea when they asked (since you cannot get up from the table once the game starts). Occasionally if there was an extra set laying around, we children would just play matching games with the tiles, just pretending and going through the motions, but without actually knowing what we were doing.
The winter break of my freshman year of college, I remember bragging over dinner to my parents and grandma that I had finally learned how to play mahjong. Some upperclassmen friends of mine had taught me, and after playing with them almost every weekend that first semester I thought I was getting pretty good. So, my family set up the table, and of course, I got trounced by my parents and grandmother. Turns out, a semester of playing with friends doesn’t beat a lifetime of experience. But my grandma saw that I wanted to get better, so during that break, we would set up the table nightly after dinner and play a game or two, with my grandma and mom teaching me basic strategy and the complexities of the game. When I got back to college after that winter break mahjong boot camp, I was good enough to keep up with my friends, sometimes even taking a game or two off them. We played throughout my four years in college, and when they graduated, I taught the underclassmen how to play. By then it had become my friend group’s tradition, and even my white friends learned how to play (we made them a cheat sheet so they could read the tiles). Even though I live in New York now and college was years ago, whenever I go home to visit my parents, we still play one or two games after dinner. We sit around the table and joke about how bad my dad is at mahjong, talk about how my sister is better than me because she has a better intuition for which tiles are safe to play, and my grandma still reprimands me for focusing too hard on my own hand and not paying enough attention to what tiles other people need.
I think it is great that the game has spread so far that the three of you cared enough to want to make a set – mahjong isn’t some secret cultural tradition I have to hoard away from you, and your actions in promoting The Mahjong Line will not take away from how meaningful the game is to me.
See, for me mahjong was never just about the game. It was about the friendships I made while playing, and it is a cherished tradition for my family. I love sharing mahjong with others, not just because it’s a fun game, but also because it’s a part of who I am as an Asian American. I think it is great that the game has spread so far that the three of you cared enough to want to make a set – mahjong isn’t some secret cultural tradition I have to hoard away from you, and your actions in promoting The Mahjong Line will not take away from how meaningful the game is to me. But in whatever comes next for The Mahjong Line, I hope that you take stories like mine to heart and find a way to celebrate the whole history and tradition of mahjong, and what it means to people like me. And if you’re ever in New York, I’d be happy to teach you the mahjong I grew up with, and you can teach me American Mahjong.
P.S. If you want to watch a hilarious Hong Kong film about mahjong, may I recommend Fat Choi Spirit? I watched it every Lunar New Year growing up and it never stops being ridiculous and entertaining.