What’s wrong with this Mahjong?

Photo Credit: The Mahjong Line

Photo Credit: The Mahjong Line

Recently an American company called The Mahjong Line, that sells “chic” versions of Mahjong, came under fire on Twitter for claims of cultural appropriation. Since the backlash, the company has muted comments on their Instagram posts and some affiliate companies have deleted their associated content.

The dominant reason for the backlash by Asian Twitter users – specifically Chinese users – was that they felt that the founders, three white women, were exploiting the cultural significance and meaning of the game by seemingly arbitrarily changing the characters and designs of the tiles to be more aesthetically pleasing.

So what is the issue? Other companies have changed the titles many times before as a marketing ploy, and the traditional version of Mahjong has always triumphed. There are also tiles that vary regionally, as since the game’s inception during the Qing Dynasty, Chinese migrants have disseminated the game, now a highly popular social activity for people around the globe. Even so, the majority of characters are widely recognizable and unchanging. It’s one of the primary reasons why the game was able to spread so easily.

Ultimately, the issue is not just that they changed the characters of the tiles. The issue here is the way that the founders marketed that change as an improvement for a game that is far older and more historically significant than their company, created only in 2020. The issue is the audacity.

Take what The Mahjong Line has written in their “About Us” section: 

“Whether you’re partaking in a pickup game poolside with a recurring cast of characters or bellied up to a card table in a game parlor with a cocktail, The Mahjong Line gives the game a modern makeover as playable works of art.”

And what was written here in an article about the company on Paper City:

“She searched for a unique set of her own, one she could proudly bring to friends’ homes to play, but came up empty.”

Wait a second, guys. I’m totally susceptible to reading too far into things. But this looks like a breezy way of saying that the traditional characters and style of Mahjong tiles are just…not pretty enough. Not good enough. Not aesthetically pleasing enough. 

Oof. Talk about a swift punch in the gut for Chinese kids. Speaking briefly as though Asia is a monolith (at least, the way many Americans seem to treat it): Why is it that Asian art is always treated as an aesthetic? That it is only pretty when convenient? Why do companies continue to market aspects of Asian cultures as if they are nothing more than discardable design choices?

Oh wait, I know why. It’s because the founders in the game are in a bubble. A bubble of predominantly white and upper class women, where everything depends on style. A bubble that can, for example, wear a silk kimono when and wherever they please and feel more ~culturally explorative~, while never escaping the comfort and privilege their white skin allows. 

The company brands Mahjong as a game for the elite. Not for the average white woman (I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many average white women who are easily able to scrounge up $325 for a set of Mahjong tiles from an unknown company), but for the white woman who plays the game at her leisure, on a whim. Again, consider the following from their website:

Whether you’re partaking in a pickup game poolside with a recurring cast of characters or bellied up to a card table in a game parlor with a cocktail, The Mahjong Line gives the game a modern makeover as playable works of art.”

One of the founders, Kate LaGere, in the same Paper City article, says also about the game: 

“It’s constantly being picked up and passed down by generations of women. But there is absolutely a growth spurt going on in the younger crowd, across different demographics and in different cities. It’s just attracting really cool, fun people with a ton of style,” LaGere says. “It’s played in homes or by the pool — sometimes with drinks, sometimes without. For some women, instead of picking up bridge, they’re picking up Mahjong. We’ve had so much fun creating a brand around it.”

Now we know their target audience, and their ulterior goal: to commodify Mahjong, to rebrand it into something cool and new and fun, as if the game hasn’t been played for centuries and continues to be by millions around the world. It’s an Urban Outfitters-esque gentrification tactic to fool an ignorant western audience into purchasing an exotic new pastime. Look! Sherry says excitedly, disregarding pandemic rules and ushering her three friends into her parlour. She gestures at the garish neon tiles on her coffee table. This is a new game I started playing. It’s called Mah-Jong. It’s Chinese. Her friends look on, wide-eyed and impressed. Wow, Sherry! They exclaim. We didn’t know you were so cool!

As if their versions are grander for having a different color palette, for being marketed as personality-driven collections with global names like Paris Pink and Ceylon Blue. As if their audience – elite white women – will now feel more comfortable playing the game using prettier tiles designed by a white eye. As if the traditional Mahjong set wouldn’t work well enough, even though it has worked to make successful social and business exchanges for millions of people before them.

But I think perhaps my personal issue with the company is that even in 2020, they moved forward with this objective anyways. They didn’t sit down to ask a Chinese person if their idea to rebrand Mahjong was a good one. They didn’t diversify their staff or seek opinions from POC about any potential public affairs fallouts with their marketing plan or commentary. Is their bubble so opaque that they couldn’t see this as being a potential issue? Is this (and I suspect it is so) the first time that the founders have ever been met with a negative response to their culturally insensitive pursuits?

We will see if the company moves to post a meaningful accountability statement. We will see if the company changes its public facing content in response to the public outcry.

It’s January 5, 2021. The clock continues to tick. 

Edited to add: Roughly two hours after I wrote this article, TheMahjongLine posted an acknowledgement statement on their social media (below). I hesitate to call it an apology statement – because although the company says sorry, there is a distinct displacement attempt with the usage of distinguishing their Mahjong as American Mahjong. American Mahjong is a legitimate variation of traditional Chinese Mahjong. The difference is that the former adds additional tiles. 

American Mahjong, however, is still deeply rooted to Chinese culture. Chinese immigrants brought the game to the U.S. and it was adopted by Jewish Americans, specifically women, who began playing it as a social pastime. There are significant ties between Chinese American and Jewish American communities due to decades of solidarity between the two when anti-semitism and anti-communist sentiments rose during the twentieth century. And although American Mahjong is a regional variant of the game…

…the characters remain widely unchanged.


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