photo by Flickr user joeannenah
When you are the police in an authoritarian state, you can mess with a lot of things – but authorities in a Chinese county discovered this week that mahjong is not one of them.
Mahjong (“mah jongg” in the typical American spelling) is what some people consider China’s national pastime, or as the BBC put it, “the quintessence of Chinese culture.” It also, curiously, holds a special place in the culture of Jewish Americans, especially New Yorkers, which is why I have fond memories of a game I don’t even know how to play.
But first to China, where mahjong is played in settings ranging from street-corner card tables to large commercial parlors, as depicted in the film “Crazy Rich Asians” (where it was played by ethnic Chinese Singaporeans). The BBC reported that police in Yushan, a county in southeast China’s Jiangxi province, announced at the start of this week that all mahjong parlors would be closed to “solve the gambling and noise problem” and “purify social conduct.” Gambling is illegal in China, but the province carves out an exception for small, friendly bets. As the BBC observed, a typical mahjong bet typically comes in amounts equal to $1 to $15, well under the cutoff. The action in Yushan is connected to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ongoing campaign to “eliminate the dark and evil forces” of organized crime.
A nationwide backlash to the mahjong crackdown ensued on social media which, tellingly, was not halted by the country’s internet minders. We can presume that the minders like to play mahjong too. The police had backtracked by the following day, saying they would shut down illegal gambling dens but would not interfere with licensed mahjong parlors. This being China, however, some licensed parlors reportedly shut down anyway – at least temporarily – because what the authorities say is not always what they mean or what they do. Better safe than sorry.
Mahjong is usually played for only small amounts of money, like a friendly kitchen card game. In fact, it is sometimes likened to the game of rummy. But the game uses tiles rather than cards: 144 in the Chinese original and 152 in the Americanized version, which added eight joker wild cards. The game originated in 19th century China. According to a history on the website My Jewish Learning, mahjong came to the United States in 1912 thanks to businessman Joseph Babcock, who had gone to China for the Standard Oil Co. Babcock left the Chinese symbols on the tiles but substituted Western numerals.
The game caught on quickly in the 1920s, but without standardized English rules, it became increasingly convoluted and confusing. In stepped a group of Jewish-American women to form the National Mah Jongg League in 1937. They standardized the rules and began issuing a card annually that showed which hands would be winners – just to inject some variety. Players bought the cards each year. My mother, like most of her friends, kept hers in a clear plastic holder that she set on the table in front of the rack where she placed her tiles in their weekly game. Soon enough, all the players had the card memorized.
The games became a social staple for these women on the home front during World War II, while men like my father (who was in the Navy) were away at war. It remained largely a women’s game even after the servicemen returned. Mothers would play it as often as every weekday in the summer at the bungalow colonies in the Catskills, where they stayed with the children while their husbands were at work in “the city.” The rest of the year, it might be a weekly game that rotated among their homes and apartments, often on the same night that the husbands were out for their lodge meetings.
This is how I became familiar with mahjong. My mother played with three or four other women; every fifth week or so, the game was at our house. She would set out cakes, cookies and refreshments, which, naturally, got my attention.
My younger brother would go to bed, my father would be at his lodge meeting, and this meant I had the family television to myself – another big plus. We did not have a pet in our small apartment, but one of the guests always brought her ancient stub-tailed boxer dog, Duke. He even had his own labeled water bowl under our sink. Duke kept me company until bedtime, which I could delay by marching around the mahjong table to kiss each of the women good night. (I was young but I wasn’t stupid.) Then I would fall asleep to the sound of those tiles clacking away in the kitchen and the mysterious calls of “Two bam! Three crak! Eight dot!” I never had a clue what any of it meant.
Like our dads, we boys were not introduced to mahjong; the assumption was that we would not be interested. Had I been a girl, my experience would likely have been different. My grade-school buddy Bobbi, with whom I stay in touch on Facebook, still plays with her friends in Queens, New York. Bobbi’s mom taught her during the summers at their bungalow colony. “I was probably 6 or 7,” she wrote when I messaged her to ask about it. The National Mah Jongg League currently numbers its members in the hundreds of thousands and offers online play for members without a local game, so Bobbi and her friends are far from alone.
Bobbi has her own daughter now, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she knows a thing or two about the game. All I know is that the cops in New York, unlike those in Yushan, have sense enough not to mess with mahjong.