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For the love of Mahjong: 6 Chinese-Canadians share nostalgic memories of playing the game

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WRITING: RENÉE TSE
@tseparfait

PHOTOGRAPHY: May Truong
@maytruong_photography

Back in 2011, I inherited my very own mahjong set from my university Chinese student club. Since I didn’t really know how to play, my group of friends ended up taking it because they wanted something to do besides play beer pong on the weekends. I remember I envied my friends who knew how to play the game that seemed to be the exclusive pastime of  my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. To me, there was something always so adult about knowing how to play mahjong.

My parents haven’t played mahjong in the last decade (hence why I didn’t know how to play) but funny enough, we do have a room dedicated to mahjong, which contains a heritage, wooden-carved square table and matching chairs with embroidered red cushions. Our family mahjong set, which comes in a faux luxe leather case, sat in the cupboard collecting dust over time. We are a big TV family that would much rather spend our free time bingeing Asian dramas than play hours of mahjong. My sister and I weren’t seasoned players, who would ultimately bore my parents’ to tears  if we played with them.

Mahjong rarely comes up in everyday convo, but it became the topic du jour earlier in January when the Internet caught wind of The Mahjong Line, a brand created by three white Dallas women who found the need to “upgrade” and redesign the Chinese mahjong sets to suit their unique personalities. (Which they  also sold for a cool $350 USD). Well, you can imagine the anger and uproar it caused on TikTok and Instagram by Asian-Americans and Canadians, calling out on the cultural appropriation and overall confusion on what gave these ladies the right to “refresh” this long-standing traditional Chinese game. A couple of days later, the founders took down their original About Us statement and replaced it with a (non) apology letter.

Although this started out as a moment of outrage, it gave Chinese-Americans and Canadians a chance to not only check in with themselves on where they stood on this preposterous event, but also talk about racial injustice issues within their families and circle of friends. I guess you can call it a silver lining: We’re beginning to see the younger generation getting in touch with their roots more and more, and using whatever platform they have to speak out about racial issues, which has been invigorating to see. Take Tea Base for example,  a community art space opened up in Toronto’s Chinatown Centre Mall two years ago as a way for intergenerational activists and artists who support social justice movements in and around Chinatown to meet. Aside from hosting workshops and language cafés, they hosted mahjong games every week.

“I started this because I wanted to play with my parents,” says Hannia Cheng, Co-Director of Tea Base. “I used it to reconnect with my parents, and it turned out a lot of other people wanted to use mahjong as a way of reconnection as well.”

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"I remember running around with my sister and cousins, while the adults shuffled tiles and spontaneously yelled “pong!'"

This incident also made me reminisce about my own memories of mahjong. Like so many other Canadian-born Chinese kids, I was surrounded by an extended family of many aunties, uncles and grandparents who would gather under one roof on any given holiday and celebratory occasion to feast and play mahjong. To this day, I remember running around with my sister and cousins, while the adults shuffled tiles and spontaneously yelled “pong” when they grabbed a tile they’d been patiently waiting for. I also love the stories my dad would tell me. Back in the day, before he went out on a date with my mom, he would have to play a game or two with my maternal grandparents, otherwise they’d yell at him asking “why are you here if you’re not here to play mahjong?” All this reminiscing resulted in my parents finally re-teaching my little sister and I how to properly play a few weekends ago. We ended up playing all weekend long,  and only stopping to refuel our stomachs.

“There’s definitely a nostalgic factor to mahjong for a lot of people, I think maybe because it’s not exactly a quiet game. The sound of the clacking tiles, shouting out “pong” and “seung.” Even if you have never learned to play from your family, I think a lot of people share this nostalgic experience,” explains Christie Carriere, Co-Creative Director of Tea Base. “It’s not something you ever really come across in mainstream Western culture, so if you grew up here, you end up deeply associating mahjong with a sense of family and childhood. I’m sure there are a lot of cultural things that have a similar effect, but after running Mahjong Monday at Tea Base, we hear a lot of similar stories about these mahjong memories.”

Every Chinese-American or Canadian has some sort of nostalgic tie to mahjong–whether it was their first time play or first time watching someone play. So I reached out to fellow Chinese-Canadians to share their first or most memorable experience because even though mahjong isn’t a game many of us play now on the regular, it’s very much a treasured part of our lives.

 

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Alyssa Lau, founder of New Classics (@imalyssalau)

“My first memories of mahjong are the clicking and clacking of tiles being shuffled together as my cousins, brother and I played hide and seek throughout my grandmother’s basement. Now, mahjong is one of the few threads I proudly grasp that connect me to my Chinese heritage. (I don’t have many, but of the few threads I hold, mahjong is one of my most treasured).

I first learned how to play in a kind of passing-of-the-torch occasion in 2015 in which my cousins and I sat around the table, each taught and supervised by an auntie, mother, great-aunt or grandmother. It was that very experience that jump started my love for the game which I play at every chance I get–usually at family gatherings during the holidays. Since the pandemic, my friends and I have been playing online in an effort to stay connected and more importantly, competitive.”

Daniel Y., PR Manager

“As a kid, it was a privilege to watch the adults play at the mahjong table. I remember sitting quietly next to my mom, trying precociously to decipher the intricacies of the dynamic game. Not knowing the rules, but excited all the same when someone won. There was no bigger compliment than when someone declares you as their lucky charm, usually my mom or gung gung (maternal grandpa), and on the rare occasion even let me select the next tile (mohw pai) for good luck.

After a while, I would finally get bored of watching mahjong and join my cousins. We would watch cartoons and Disney movies with the volume turned all the way up in attempts to drown out the loud noise of shuffling tiles, periodically yelling in jest for the adults to, “keep it down! We’re trying to watch TV.” The clacking noise that we once complained about would eventually be the same comforting sound that we fall asleep to as the adults played well into the early morning.

The kids would wake up early the next day—it was our turn to play. We would use the tiles to build emerald cities of mazes and pyramids. We would see how high we could stack the tiles before it toppled over, and without fail, the tower would come crashing down every time. We would all laugh hysterically and then quickly shush ourselves as we remember the adults are still asleep.

After breakfast, I would watch my gung gung meticulously wipe each individual tile clean using a damp cloth before placing the mahjong set back into its leather case, fresh and ready to be played again at the next family gathering. Now, several years after he’s passed, this ritual is one of the most cherished memories I have of him.”

 

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Sasha Mei, creator (@sasha.mei

“When I think of mahjong, I’m transported back to the times I visited my grandmother in Malaysia. She is the matriarch of the family, fully embodying the stereotype of a tough love grandmother that will critique you without reserve, but whose doting affection remains unparalleled. She maintained the domestic realm of the family home, but watching (and hearing) her play mahjong gave me a glimpse of a world where she could let loose from responsibility. The clinks of the tiles were loud, the other women she played with were even louder. I never learned the game, but was fascinated from afar by the crass language and the howling laughter. That looked like pure fun to me, even as a young girl.”

May Truong, Photographer (@maytruong_photography)

“One of my earliest memories is of my grandpa bringing me to his mahjong games and I would watch him play. He would slam the tiles down and swear something in Cantonese. It was a room full of other old men and women smoking and gambling. It was exhilarating to be there.”

King Choy, Creative 

“Mahjong was always a hazy, mythical memory during my childhood. I still find it very mysterious to this day. It was always played in clandestine basements, slightly hidden from our view. My grandfather played it, as did my aunts. I would catch a glimpse of it when it visited my mom’s family. You could tell gambling was involved, even though you never saw money exchanged. The sounds of the tiles, the rhythm of the game was almost hypnotic. Maybe it was the connection to Hong Kong gangster films, or maybe because everyone looked so serious when they were playing, but it always had a connection to something slightly dangerous, a world I never quite understood.”

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Deborah Lau-Yu, Editor-in-Chief of Fête Chinose and Art Director of Palettera

“In my 20s, I was reacquainted with the mahjong tiles I used to build towers with as a child. At my grandmother’s nursing home, my now-husband and I would gather three other senior friends to join my grandmother at the table. Though familiar with the game by observing our parents growing up, we formally learned from my grandmother during this time. Of the 365 days in the year, we played at least 300 days with her and the fellow residents. We became young pros and even got some of our other friends (back) into the game.

Mahjong is a fascinating traditional activity that encompasses so many aspects of Chinese culture and philosophy. Engaging in this wholesome family game is rooted in our heritage and family traditions, and through mahjong, my grandmother’s last days were made more meaningful and stimulating for her mind, heart, and body.

During graduate school, I created an award-winning project titled Tuesdays about these times at the mahjong table with old friends. It represented the average weekday where these players (including my grandmother) and spectators would gather, dedicated to the hour or two we would spend together. It was what these seniors looked forward to the most, everyday. I will definitely teach my daughter how to play and to keep this tradition alive.”

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