Cover Art, Tempest in a Teapot by John Davis
Welcome to MJ DIVA Magazine
The International Magazine for Discerning Mah Jongg Players
Created by John Davis
Edited by Judith Euen Davis
MJ DIVA Publications is Our New Website. Please Visit Us.
In this Issue
Editor's Note: The spelling of the name of the game varies widely, and we are not responsible for how it appears. We always try to respect the authors’ choices.
SECTION ONE The World of American Mah Jongg
The Story of the Mahjong Line
Business owner Kate LAGere relates how she created a new site and new collection of mah jongg tiles and how they stoked controversy.
An Open Letter to the Mah Jong Community
Annelise Heinz, History Professor at the University of Oregon, examines the recent Mahjong Line Company controversy and the history of mahjong in America through the lens of forgotten and overlooked histories,
The Ever-Changing Art of the Game of Mahjong
Mah Jongg author and lecturer Gregg Swain traces the origin of the symbols on the Chinese tiles and tracks their transformations in American Mah Jongg.
Tony Watson, mah jong historian, collector and tile restorer, shares some facts about the Chinese game and its historical transformations.
The DeLaRue Electrical Card Mah Jong Set
Tony Watson shares an example of how the artistry of mah jong migrates into 1920’s advertising.
Two Examples of European Sets
Collector Theresa Bounassi shares images from her collection: one from France and another from Germany as examples of the range of artistry of mah jong manufacturers.
A surprise guest shares her pandemic-fueled alternate identity
SECTION TWO Mahj Techology: How Online Gaming, Zoom, and Podcasts Have Become an Integral Part of American Mah Jongg
Online Mah Jongg 2.0
Julie and Phillipe, the creators of the new online gaming site, ilovemahj.com, lead us through many innovative features including being able to see and hear tablemates, choosing levels of smart bots, and providing personal statistics.
Mah Jongg Mondays Podcasts Become Wildly Popular
Created and helmed by author Fern Bernstein, Mah Jongg Mondays podcasts have covered an amazingly impressive number of topics and personalities since their launch in March, 2020.
How Donna Miller Kassman & Dara Collins, founders and owners of ModernMahjong.com, Finessed Zoom, Online Gaming Tournaments, Social Media, and YouTube to Build a Mah Jongg Community
Donna and Dara share how their business has grown through the skillful use of technology.
the world of american mah jongg
The Story of the Mahjong Line
Our Mahjong Beginnings
My personal story with American Mahjong began five years ago with Dallas-based Mahjong legend, Marlene Stern. Marlene is both an instructor and tournament judge whose quirkiness and knack for telling great stories kept me entertained to no end (she also was kind enough to teach us some Yiddish curse words to be used during the most frustrating Mahjong moments). After learning from Marlene, I eventually found my way to my regular foursome, two of whom became my business partners: Annie and Bianca. Annie, who was taught the game by her mother, has played with her huge extended family for decades. Bianca is also a veteran player. She is my neighbor, dear friend, and one of the funniest people I have ever met.
Our Mahjong group plays wherever we can: each other’s homes, card rooms, over lunch at a deli, and always on family vacations. With 10 children among the three of us, kiddos are often running around in the background and/or playing alongside us. The youngest player in the crew is only eight but can beat adults with regularity.
Spotting a Trend
The game seemed to be experiencing a renaissance. In recent years, we observed a noticeable increase in Mahjong’s popularity within a newer demographic—women in their 30s and 40s. Annie was teaching groups of friends twice a week and could barely keep up with the demand. Players were definitely skewing younger, and the “mom” in us loved the idea of such a timeless game resonating with a younger crowd, i.e. devices turned off and real human interaction turned on.
We conducted market research, consulted with experts, and went down a Mahjong history rabbit hole to see what came before us. What we found was a large and diverse market for American Mahjong sets, with a wide range of price points.
The vast majority of tiles produced for U.S. domestic play would be considered traditional American Mahjong tiles. Of note, while these tiles were inspired by the original designs and characters of the Chinese game, the marketers of the early American version made a number of distinct changes (coins became dots, strings of coins became bamboo, dragons and jokers were added, and seasons deemphasized). Ultimately, a standard set included 152 tiles and was designed to be used with the playing card distributed annually by The National Mah Jongg League.
There is also a wide variety of completely original tile designs, many with no resemblance to the original Chinese characters (nor the characters of the traditional American set). Although dozens of non-traditional sets exist in the marketplace, we realized that availability can be inconsistent and prices on the secondary market are often quite high. We became more confident there was room in the market for fun, limited edition sets which celebrate our love of color and art.
Design: Heck Yes!
In January of 2020, we began the design phase of our first tile prototypes, and the Covid-driven pause on life only heightened our focus and accelerated our productivity. “Don’t just WANT it, make it” became our marching order, and “live and learn” became our mantra as we made countless mistakes (big and small) on the way up a steep learning curve. (can insert photos here)yes
The tile art design process was fluid and fun. We went back and forth on fine-tuning the designs for months. We needed original designs that did not sacrifice playability (i.e. easy to interpret artwork, distinct colors for contrasting suits, and increased legibility). Annie’s experience as a teacher also helped identify common sources of confusion for new players (e.g. the numbers on flowers/seasons, one bam birds looking like flowers, etc.). All of this had to be applied to a small piece of plastic using a machine engraver and a human hand…easier said than done.
Production: Oh Boy!
If the design component was fun and exciting, the manufacturing process was clunky, awkward, and altogether mind-bending. We knew nothing about manufacturing, much less for Mahjong tiles, racks, carriers and other accessories. We started the process here in the U.S. but quickly learned that producing custom-colored acrylic plastics—a major component of our vision—meant searching overseas. It was daunting to say the least—the number of samples, prototypes, and iterations going back and forth from China are too many to count. For every instance of pure joy there were many moments of pure frustration. I have so many memories of checking my front porch incessantly, awaiting a prototype delivery. Luckily, we were introduced to an incredible partner in China who helped guide us through the rockier parts of the process. He has been (and continues to be) a huge component of our success. But ultimately, it was three amateurs finding their way with a lot of trial and error.
The last step in bringing this all to life was creating a channel to market our products and speak directly to our core customer, in our own voices. This meant developing our own brand and ecommerce website. Our knowledge of online retail was only slightly better than that of manufacturing. But fortunately for us, modern third-party technology platforms can cover for this (looking at you, Shopify!). For us, Mahjong represents fun and fellowship. Our brand is intentionally playful and designed to celebrate the colorful personalities that belly up to the table.
The Launch: Buckle Up!
When we launched in November 2020, we took pride in accomplishing what we set out to do: create something unique and bring it to market. The initial response was incredible and overwhelmingly positive. We have been inspired by the number of fellow female entrepreneurs who have reached out to support us, and we are determined to pay it forward. Additionally, the feedback and support from the broader American Mahjong “establishment” has been a wonderful surprise. This is not a group we knew well, nor did they know us. It’s comprised of experts, historians, authors, and devoted players (this newsletter’s editor certainly falls into this category) and can be a tough nut to crack. The warm and enthusiastic embrace from this community is a true honor. Sales to date have pleasantly exceeded our expectations (driven by a mix of seasoned and new players alike) and we are currently in production for our next run.
At the beginning of January, we found ourselves in the middle of an online firestorm centered around topics of cultural appropriation and race. Social media users accused The Mahjong Line of “white-washing” Chinese culture. Many demanded we shut down or “cancel” our business immediately. It is difficult to describe this experience. Having thousands of online strangers hurl abusive, profane language at you and threaten your physical safety is daunting, especially for a tiny start-up. Social media and national news outlets quickly amplified the rhetoric and generally did not address the long history of change within the game nor the current marketplace. The social media mob mentality is dangerous and not conducive to dialogue and learning.
On the other hand, we did seek out and find people that could share their honest opinions with us, and we continue to welcome sincere outreach from anyone who wants to take the time to share their viewpoints. Over the last several weeks we have connected with dozens of individuals over the phone, via Zoom and in-person. We and our company are better for it and we thank you.
There are some lessons that came out of these discussions. Most notably, in the original website copy, we used words like “modernize” and “refresh” which can be associated with episodes of cultural erasure experienced by many Asian-Americans. We take full responsibility for this mistake. We are adding a page to our website that shines a brighter light on mahjong’s origins, history and evolution so that players (and soon-to-be players) can learn more about the game. Additionally, it became obvious that many are not aware of the existence of American Mahjong as an established game, one that has been celebrated in the U.S. for over 100 years. We will provide information related to this as well.
Our products are wholly consistent with the creative expression and variety of products that have been a part of the game of Mahjong since its inception; we proudly stand by our products. We, along with thousands of other companies, celebrate American Mahjong by selling to the large market of dedicated players who love this game as much as we do. The outpouring of support from our customers has been a source of strength for us; we cannot thank you enough. We will continue to focus on growing the game.
Philanthropy and Looking Ahead
Philanthropy is a large part of the game of American Mahjong—the National Mah Jongg League established this early on as part of their mission. As mothers, our philanthropic efforts focus on children. Every month, we make donations to charities that help support young people who need it most.
The Mahjong Line was created with fun and fellowship in mind. It has been an invigorating, challenging, exciting, and humbling two years, and we are excited about what’s ahead. With every move we make in the future, we keep three things in mind: live and learn, people are good, and jokers are wild (but not to be used in a pair).
It is almost impossible if you are both a mah jongg player and a Facebook user not to have encountered Johni Levene’s nearly 30,000 member strong "Mah Jongg, That’s It!” discussion group. The name is a quiet nod to the early days of Mah Jongg when players used the the phrase “that's it” to declare their winning hand. This lively group focuses on all aspects of the game, from table, National Mah Jongg League, and tournament rules, to game etiquette, creative photography, vintage set show and tell, set identification and restoration techniques. All have been just a few of the recent group discussion topics there. Another great perk of the group is the wonderful exclusive vendor promotions that Johni sets up for her members. Although the group does not allow direct advertising, they do work to promote small business and others who create mah jongg related items by arranging exclusive giveaways and discounts for her group.
Starting on February 5, 2021, Mah Jongg Diva Magazine is partnering with MJTI on one such promotion for The Mahjong Line, whose story is featured in this month's magazine.
To participate, go to “Mah Jongg, That’s It” on Facebook, find the giveaway post and enter which of the 5 sets from The Mahjong Line you would love to take home. TWO lucky members will be selected at random to take home their dream set absolutely free. In addition, The Mahjong Line will be offering an exclusive discount of 20% off on any tile set or neoprene playing mat by entering "MJTI" in the coupon code on their site, www.themahjongline.com. The promotion and discount ends on Valentine's Day, February 14th, at 6pm PST. Winners are chosen by random draw and announced in the group.
An Open Letter
to the Mah Jong Community
I did not expect 2021 to begin with a cultural controversy over mahjong, but as a historian of the game, I can also see how forgotten histories fueled a perfect storm. I’m a professor of history at the University of Oregon, and I’ve been researching the story of mahjong in the United States for a dozen years. My book on the subject, Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture, which began as my doctoral dissertation at Stanford University, is coming out May 2021 with Oxford University Press. One of the things that has stood out for me is how the game has repeatedly brought people together– and how, as the game has evolved, it has also created new boundaries.
For those who haven’t heard, in the fall of 2020, three white women launched the Mahjong Line, a company that advertised redesigned sets to play American mahjong; some of their sets also removed Chinese references from the tiles. The language they used to roll it out – both on their website and Instagram-based marketing campaign – combined with their tile revamp, sparked outrage across Twitter, particularly among Asian Americans, who denounced the company for cultural appropriation.
Over the ensuing weeks and ongoing coverage, I’ve noticed that, for the most part, people who find the company offensive and people who do not are talking across each other, with persistent gaps in understanding. You might have felt that, too! I hope that the histories I introduce here and talk about in my book can provide a bridge between divergent perspectives. I also know that some of these conversations are difficult and disorienting. The history of mahjong in the United States is characterized by both cultural exchange and evolution, as well as appropriation and erasure.
Here are the basic outlines of the issue: the Mahjong Line Company made serious errors in judgment rooted in a lack of knowledge about Asian Americans’ experiences both with the game and with a history of racism that the company’s language echoed. Some of the shock and horror that greeted them, however, was informed by their critics’ lack of awareness of the game’s unique American history, or that something called American mahjong even existed.
The Heart of the Matter
I’m first going to try to break down what I see as the heart of the matter, which is actually about the history of race and racism in our society – not for the purposes of specifically critiquing the Mahjong Line, but rather to try to explain the sources of the outrage and use this example to reflect on issues in American culture more generally and the history of mahjong specifically.
Although I do not subscribe to an idea of cultural ownership that prevents exchange and adaptation, it is not enough to simply point out that people adapt culture all the time. We also need to consider power dynamics in cultural exchanges and who has profited from inequities, especially when they’re commercialized.
I’ve heard many people in the American mahjong community asking questions like: what was so upsetting about this company? One key point is to separate the marketing from the sets themselves. The Mahjong Line Company triggered this stormy response when their marketing campaign echoed persistent and painful experiences widely shared by Asian Americans. Over the last century and a half, “mainstream” white American culture has frequently depicted East Asian people and cultures as indistinguishable and interchangeable. The language on the company’s website stated that traditional tiles were “all the same,” which reinforced a superficial sense of homogeneity. In addition, the stereotype goes, Chinese or “Eastern” cultures are tradition-bound and static, and are therefore of limited value. In contrast, the assumption is that “the West” is poised to modernize, individuate, and improve upon commodified forms of these cultures. The company reflected this posture with language on their website. These historical beliefs about Asian people matter: they were not only sources of unfortunate prejudice, they had material and lasting consequences that shaped immigration policies and exclusion from naturalized citizenship for decades.
Deep-seated stereotypes have persisted in more subtle ways. So, while outside observers may have felt the response to the Mahjong Line was outsized and out of the blue, for many Asian Americans, the company’s affront felt both raw and recurring. Recent years have seen a string of high-profile examples that continued to push on these pain points, including the erasure of Asian characters in rewritten scripts for Hollywood films in order to cast white actors, as well as white restauranteurs denigrating Chinese American food as “icky” while marketing their own “clean” version. The Mahjong Line founders acted out of ignorance and not malice – and it’s important to distinguish the two – but things done without intention do not negate the impact – particularly for anyone striving to build on and profit from a related cultural product.
A Problematic Past, A Painful Inheritance
Though most people don’t know it, the anti-Asian racism that was commonplace in American culture was also a foundational part of the game’s introduction to the United States in the 1920s. At the time, outright racism was widely accepted and considered an everyday part of American culture and humor. When businesses like Joseph Babcock’s Mah-Jongg Sales Company and his competitors sought to create a market for the game, they did so by exaggerating exoticism and highly stereotyped aspects of Chinese culture to create excitement. It worked. White Americans ironically embraced a Chinese game while still rejecting Chinese people. The fad hit its peak at the same moment that nativism and anti-Asian immigration policies were also at their strongest.
Mahjong culture was rife with explicitly racist humor: the chorus of the 1924 hit song “Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong” broadcasts a particularly horrifying example that celebrates the killing of Chinese people. The proprietor of the Pung Chow Company, L.L. Harr, launched a national advertising campaign that asserted that contemporary Chinese and Chinese Americans merely played a degraded version of the “true” game that he manufactured and sold. Meanwhile, media coverage widely portrayed Joseph Babcock as the “bright” American who successfully modernized a supposedly ancient game; Babcock even briefly claimed that he invented the game himself. Even at the time, their claims enraged Chinese Americans who spoke out in newspapers against being pushed out of the game’s history by Babcock, or belittled by Harr.
I hope that one outcome of this controversy is to provide an opportunity for American mahjong players to build awareness of how the American culture that embraced the game has also perpetuated stereotypes. Exotic misrepresentations of Chinese culture no longer drive the popularity of mahjong among white Americans, but it is important to be aware of and work against the persistent caricatures of Chinese culture that show up occasionally in “Chinese-y” fonts and accoutrement like Joker stickers that mix portrayals of Asian women in an Asian-ish pastiche.
Evolution of the American Game
There is more to understand: the evolution of American versions of the game provides essential context to understand some of the Mahjong Line Company’s choices. Knowing the history of mahjong does not carry the same moral responsibility as understanding the history of racism. Understanding both histories, however, are essential to understanding this conflict. Virtually none of the recent media coverage has included any explanation of the American history of the game and has therefore missed a crucial part of the story.
Multiple American forms of mahjong emerged over the twentieth century, after it first gained extraordinary levels of popularity in an enormous national fad of the 1920s. Over the ensuing decades, Air Force officers’ wives created the Wright-Patterson game, which is still played on Air Force bases around the world. The most influential adaptation by far was driven by the National Mah Jongg League based in New York. Eventually hundreds of thousands of players, mostly but not exclusively Jewish American women, played their “National” version of the international Chinese game. The League’s game is what is popularly known today as “American” mahjong.
The National Mah Jongg League took a shared reference point from mahjong’s American past and transformed it into something new. When the League codified the first uniquely American style of play in the 1930s, it marked the cultural and physical Americanization of the game– a process that continued through the following decades as American mahjong became increasingly differentiated in rule and form. By the 1960s, their repeated changes had transformed the game enough that it required a different set of tiles that included Jokers. Overall, however, the tiles shared the same increasingly standardized Chinese-originated designs that kept it a recognizable form of mahjong.
Jewish American women in particular forged American mahjong culture. Mahjong became a touchstone for many who grew up in middle-class Jewish culture, along with tile racks, coin purses, snacks, and slang. As a result, American mahjong also nurtures feelings of belonging associated with the game and memories that span generations, especially among Jewish Americans. I’ve interviewed dozens of people who described the profound place mahjong has played in their and their mothers’ or grandmothers’ lives. Inherited sets are a powerful way to connect with loved ones who have passed away.
The game itself allows for adaptability, which has both made it a dynamic and long-lasting culture presence as well as left it open to changes and evolution that some might find upsetting. These are traditions that provide context for the Mahjong Line’s set designs. Because a wide range of people can play and adapt the game, the game has remained significant both as a form of entertainment and as a cultural touchstone for many different cultural groups.
A Game of the Senses
Which brings us back to the tiles themselves. Mahjong is a game of the senses. One of the things that has connected mahjong players in a shared experience is a deep and abiding love of the tiles and all the sensory delights that come with them. Nothing else mimics the clatter of mahjong tiles running over each other, or the smooth cool weight of a tile in hand. Regardless of when and where the game is played, or by whom, these experiences remain. These aspects of the game are part of what makes mahjong unique and are no small part of its boundary-crossing appeal.
For many Asian American players, growing up with their families’ and communities’ games of mahjong. created a strong sense of belonging and heritage. These ties were made stronger in part by the Chinese writing and symbolic resonances of the tiles. Seeing the tiles transformed, some of which were in sets that were stripped of these visual connections, thus felt like a trespass. When the Mahjong Line rolled out their new tiles with a deeply problematic marketing campaign, the feeling of cultural erasure compounded.
Unfortunately, one very frequent refrain of criticism simply proclaimed a dislike of the new tiles as “ugly” or expensive. That line of argument distracted from the more important social issues that the conflict reveals. If the concern is presented as purely a matter of personal aesthetics, it is fair for someone else to respond in kind and dismiss this complaint. After all, no one has to buy the Mahjong Line’s sets – but that is not actually the point. Being clear and informed in criticisms enables a genuine dialogue that gets to the heart of the matter.
Others have argued that the tile designs should not change at all. For them, it may be illuminating to understand that the exact tile designs have in fact dynamically changed over time. The images we know today most likely originated in the 1800s as references to money – what is now “bamboo,” for example, began as strings of coins. In the early twentieth century, tile carvers in China created a vast array of different images on the “flower” tiles especially – from scenes of Chinese operas to streetscapes of modern cigarette-smoking women in the 1930s. Some sets featured political messages rallying Chinese players against Japanese imperialism, while others incorporated advertising slogans. In more recent decades, companies across Asia have played with set designs as well, including a new set that celebrates aspects of Taiwan’s culture. Nearly 40 variants of mahjong have evolved around the world and some also incorporate additional tiles, not unlike the American sets’ Jokers. The tiles have never been static.
Removing Chinese markers altogether is a more dramatic change. Even here the Mahjong Line Company is not unique – others predate them – but across the board it is an unusual step. Without Chinese images, a mahjong set becomes unrecognizable as mahjong. Notably, American companies are not the only ones to have removed Chinese references: the discontinued Sanrio “Funbox” set featured Hello Kitty and teddy-bear faces in place of dots and bamboo and erased Chinese characters in favor of numerals. One of the redesigned Mahjong Line sets organizes its “bamboo” suit not around bamboo and the Chinese-rooted cultural symbolism it has developed over time. Instead, their set references American mahjong culture with a focus on the nickname “bam” – displayed in loops and circles instead of the traditional straight bamboo lines – and puns the tiles known as “flowers” with bags of flour. Another set designed by photographer Robert Trachtenberg and illustrator Tom Bachtell, manufactured by the American games company Crisloid, takes similar inspiration in its redesign. The “dot” tiles have been reimagined as circles on a woman’s dress with mid-century flair. Chinese words and numbers have been removed. Notably, the “Trach/Bach” set did not create a social media advertising campaign and has generally escaped notice from critics. Observers may still object to these changes, but the Mahjong Line was neither the first nor the only company to make them.
Continuing the Conversation
If the game evolves so far from its origins that it is no longer recognizable, it begs the question: is this still mahjong? For me, the fact that mahjong contains incredible diversity and the tiles can connect across cultural divides is profoundly beautiful. So, when I see sets change to the point that the American game no longer evokes its shared Chinese origins, nor can it be a bridge to the other forms of mahjong around the world, it breaks my heart a little – even though the new sets can be great on their own terms. When something is fully different, it’s a new start but it’s also a loss. How you view these changes might depend on who you are and the experiences you bring to it, and whether or not distancing the American game from its Chinese origins feels threatening. As various forms of mahjong become more popular in the U.S., we’re likely to continue having these conversations – and it all connects to history, whether we know it or not.
The Ever-Changing Art of the Game of Mahjong
Mahjong is the most popular pastime in the world, but it’s not played the same everywhere. In fact it’s been adapted over and over to suit different groups and cultures. Versions add or subtract tiles, alter scoring and rules to suit, all helping to explain the great appeal of the game. Changes have been going on ever since the game was first invented, but major alterations happened when mahjong was about to make its first appearance on the international scene.
Historical records of the game no longer exist, nor do most of the early sets with a few exceptions. Much of the game’s history was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, along with early sets. Michael Stanwick (themahjongtileset.co.uk) has a marvelous website detailing some of the early history of the game, in addition to showcasing marvelous sets.
Foreign marketers knew what do to make mahjong a sensation, and it certainly was. In the 1920s, MJ was so popular that sets were China’s sixth biggest export-an astonishing statistic given the game had only recently made its international debut.
In the 1920s, the world was keenly interested in the exoticism of China, and game companies provided players with what they wanted: a glimpse into old “Cathay.” But the view wasn’t accurate -it was one admen and marketers wanted to convey to the world. They linked the game to Confucius whom they credited with inventing mahjong or at least playing it; the fact Confucius had been dead over a thousand years before the earliest form of the game began didn’t seem to matter! Not only did they change the history of the game, but companies each made up their own set of rules and scoring, the thinking being the Chinese multi-layered approach to the game was too complicated for foreigners to play. They were marketing their ideas about China, not necessarily the truth of what mahjong was really about.
The Chinese version played today isn’t the original one from the early 1900s. The game was declared illegal during Mao’s time, and only reintroduced in the 1980s after government officials made changes to it, hoping to cut down on the gambling that had always been part of the game.
The original three suits of the game were based on money: (coins), strings of coins (strings of cash), and Myriads of cash (myriads is a unit of 10,000).
The Chinese carried coins on strings which went through the hollow middle of the coins. Every 50 or 100 coins they’d tie a knot, making it easy to see how much money there was. To the foreign eye, these long strings with knots resembled bamboo.
Marketers changed these too. The Cash/coin suit was turned into “Dots”, Strings of coins into Bamboo, “Bams” with only the Myriads remaining true to history, featuring the red Character (the American term for the Chinese written word) for 10,000 at the bottom of the tile. It’s suspected those marketers didn’t think foreigners would care about strings of cash but certainly could understand bamboo which again was strongly associated with China.
Some of the other tiles were changed as well. The Honor tiles (Winds and Dragons) didn’t start out as such. Their multi-layered symbolism was erased and reinterpreted for export. North East South and West became Winds, rather than the meaningful orientation points they had been before. The multi-layered archery symbols with references to Confucius became Dragons, possibly because to outsiders Dragons were an important part of Chinese culture. On tile sets, Dragons first appeared as Chinese Characters, either carved as the green phoenix and red dragon, or the green prosperity and red center Characters. These were soon changed into the figural Dragons that appear on most sets made after the 1940s.
Workshops in China wanted to capitalize on the mahjong craze, and they encouraged their best carvers to create images that would sell sets. Suddenly tile designs that had been quite simple became elaborate, offering stunning One Bams and Flower suites celebrating China’s great history, culture and traditions. It was the exotic nature of the tile sets, and the game itself with the foreign words like Pung, Kong, and of course Dragon, that caught on with players around the globe.
High-end workshops pressed their designers to reimagine tile sets, and they responded with wondrous ones for their wealthy buyers. Dots no longer were dots, but could be represented as crabs, peaches, or other round objects, Bamboos could be shrimp, longevity symbols, panthers, or fish, to name a few. These sets certainly brought pleasure to their purchasers.
Designers in other countries soon came up with their own takes on images, including the British Western Electric Company and F. Ad. Richter & Cie. Both sets were completely different one from the other but both had images of people from different lands representing Winds.
Recently contemporary designs have appeared, wonderful and often humorous. These sets give a great deal of pleasure to players who enjoy the modern twists on themes. Some tiles showcase America, golf, Christmas, fun plays on words such as jars of flour on Flower tiles, (word play also exists in early Chinese art and characters on tiles). Other sets have abstract images completely removed from what we expect to see on mahjong tiles.
A WIDE RANGE OF ARTISTRY-- ALL SEVEN ROWS OF TILES PICTURED BELOW ARE IN THE SAME ARRANGEMENT:
image courtesy of Cari Tom Kuprenas
(top to bottom)
The Cheeky Line: Skylight Blue Release ( https://themahjongline.com)
image courtesy of Gregg Swain
(Bottom to top)
Chinese Bakelite 1930s
Special order 1930
Dee Gallo 2016
Gladys Grad 2019
With any of these newer sets players really have to work to interpret the images and form acceptable hands, but it’s worth their time, and lots of fun. It’s exhilarating when players get to say the word “mahjong” having accomplished this feat. If everyone enjoys the laughter provided by the design and the extra brain-stretching required, these sets could be part of a player’s set rotation.
Mahjong is all about escape, problem-solving, camaraderie, and for many of us, fun. Everyone has a different approach to playing, which explains why there are so many different mahjong groups here in the States, and so many variations of play. Changes have been going on since the earliest beginnings of the game, and hopefully tweaks and reinterpretations will help the game remain the world’s best loved pastime in the future to come.
Image courtesy of Michel Arnaud, The Art of the Game
Known as a Shanghai Luck Set, because of the crabs and shrimp, this one was created by a master carver. Notice Bams are shrimps (symbols of longevity), Dots are crabs (representing harmony) and Craks are surrounded by bats on each side, and probably peaches on the top and bottom (both are symbols of longevity). The Winds have an endless knot (symbol of longevity) and carp (symbol of a wish for good fortune), the White Dragons are Dragonflies (associated with Confucian ideals Welch) and The Red and Green Dragons each are surrounded by two dragons with a pearl between them, as often appears in Chinese art.-Gregg Swain
As a riposte to the 'cultural insensitivity' posts in social media, there are numerous instances of modification of or departure from the ‘standard’ mahjong set, for example, Alex Chang’ factory in Taiwan has produced at least 2 sets on a Golf and Christmas theme.
Here is a set from Germany, just post WWI, with translation of the first paragraph of rules (written in haut Deutsch).
“Seit etwa 40 jahren ist in China ein Spiel wieder ausgelebt, das voor 3-4 Jahrhunderten schon einmal dort bekannt bewesen sein muss. Unserer kriegsgefangenen lernten es wahrend ihrer unfreiwilligen Musse spelen und gewannen solche Freude daran, das sie es nach den Krieg mit nach Deutschland brachten. Nur einige chinesische Besonderheiten wurden verandert, und so entstand erste Deutsche Ausgabe als "deutsch-chinesisches-Domino".Allein schon durch den Reichtum aus mannigsaltigen bunten Bildern sand es in vielen Deutschen Familien sofort begeisterte Aufname.”
"For around 40 years a game has existed in China that must have been known there for 3-4 centuries. Our prisoners of war learned to play it during their involuntary leisure and gained such pleasure from it that they brought it with them to Germany after the war. Only a few Chinese peculiarities were changed, and so the first German edition was created as "German-Chinese domino". The wealth of varied colourful pictures alone made many German families immediately enthusiastic.”
You can see that modification has been around for 100 years, as we look at another German set from Sala Spiele, with a vernacular theme of Chestnuts, Apples and Acorns for the suits, lucky emblems for the Dragons and random symbols for the Winds (note O for Ost (East in German)…
The integrity of the game they are trying to defend was also a modification and adaptation of the pre-existing card games of Ma Diao and Lao Qian Pai, and was likely influenced by the very similar card game Con Quien (Coon-Can) which originated in Mexico in the early 1800s and took the world by storm - probably morphing into the card game Rummy, which has a very similar structure to mahjong (although not the NMJL version).
So the argument of maintaining the integrity has no basis in Chinese culture, there has always been modification in the past.
The problem stems from the 30 years of cultural vacuum in China during the early Communist years 1949-1979, when Mao Tse-tung came to power. Mahjong along with other games was seen as a decadent and unproductive waste of time, so a systematic purge of all sets was made, mahjong factories were closed and all their records were destroyed.
A mindset developed of embracing the new and rejecting the old and broken, so that any old mahjong sets that subsequently appeared were discarded.
Not so in Hong Kong, which was already a British Colony. We see lots of Bone & Bamboo sets plus the zip-case / satchel plastic sets coming from there, similarly in Taiwan and Singapore.
After the death of Mao in 1979, restrictions were relaxed and new factories established, but delivering a monotonous product.
Almost all of the modern sets coming from China are mass-produced, the boxes made from MDF with pasted designs and ugly tiles that have been artificially aged and stencil-carved by pantograph
.A far cry from the hand-painted or hand-carved boxes and delicately hand-carved tiles of the past - and it is these sets that the cultural warriors are trying to defend.
A case of ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ in the mind of a zealot.
DeLaRue Electrical Card Mah Jong Set
This was produced by DeLaRue for the Western Electric Co as a souvenir/promotional item at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in Wembley Park, London - it was built in only 300 days in 1923 comprising umpteen Pavilions and Palaces, each showcasing a specific part of the British Empire. The Empire Stadium would later become Wembley Stadium and became the host football ground for British Cup Final matches and International football and rugby games - it closed in 2000, was demolished in 2002-3 and rebuilt in 2007.
In the 1920s, Western Electric were the world's largest producer of phones, producing over half the world's supply!
Probably these sets were mostly given away as ‘freebies’, as many of them still contain a Compliments Slip from Western Electric’s English HQ in Connaught House, Aldwych, London, but they were sold, as they do show a price of 7/-, the equivalent of £21 / $30 in today’s money.
The cards are very unusual, abandoning the normal suits in favour of Western Electric's product lines; Cables for Circles (Dots), Phones for Characters (Craks) and Radio Valves for Bamboos (Bams).
The Winds are depicted by people of different races being blown by the wind from that direction, reminiscent of Richter’s ‘stone’ sets (note the flamenco dancer, echoed by Marilyn Monroe’s iconic subway dress scene).
Dragons are represented by green = Earth symbol, red = Antenna, white = the Aether.
Wind Indicator cards are Antennae marking the directions.
Flowers are replaced by advertising symbols and Seasons by stages in phone development.
Very stylish and beautiful Art Deco designs make this set very collectible.
The pasteboard cards measure 83x51mm with a phone and iconic lion on the back and gilt edges.
The flip-top faux crocskin box measures 180x120x30mm housing the 4 'suits' in compartments with silk lift tabs, Compliments slip, instruction booklet and score card.
Thomas de la Rue was born in a small hamlet in Guernsey (one of the Channel Isles) called Le Bourg in 1793, the seventh child (of nine) of Eleazar and Rachael de la Rue, who were probably exiles from the French Revolution.
In 1803, aged ten, he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law Joseph Antoine Chevalier, a master printer in St Peter Port who produced the Gazette de l'Île de Guernsey, the first printed newspaper on the island, gaining a thorough knowledge of printing. In 1813 he set up a joint business printing Le Publiciste, then in 1816 started a rival publication Le Miroir Politique. In 1818 he moved to London with his family and set up shop initially as a straw hat manufacturer, but he soon diversified into bookbinding and the embossing of leather, and then into paper manufacture. By around 1828 his interests had moved to playing cards and he introduced letter-press printing in 1830 together with Samuel Cornish and William Rock, founding a business of "cardmakers, hot pressers and enamellers". Prior to this, playing cards were flimsy, printed from woodblocks and hand-coloured using stencils. De la Rue's ‘improvements’ included quicker drying coloured inks, improved glazing technology and the use of enamelled paper, resulting in a much stiffer, glossier and more durable product. In 1831, de la Rue was granted the Royal Warrant to print playing cards, making it the first company to do so; it printed its first pack the following year and came to be recognised as the inventor of the modern English playing card.
Two Examples of European Sets
Collector Theresa Bounassi shares images from her collection: one from France and another from Germany as examples of the range of artistry of mah jong manufacturers.
"The German Company, Marke Pehafra casein sets are revered for the images and the paint colors. The vibrancy and brightness is captivating with royal blues, crimsons, kelly greens, and golds. The 144 tiles are ivory in color and are light in weight.
This company made several casein sets employing different images for the one dot and one bam mainly. The housing also differed from lovely leather cubes to flat hinged boxes. They all seem to have a billiard green fabric on the inside lid.
The accoutrements also are highly prized, with large wind indicator discs that are reminiscent of compasses and betting sticks with imaged pips and arabic numbers on them."
There are two flower runs. One run is of Chinese seasonal flora; bamboo, chrysanthemum, orchid, and plum. The second run is of the four noble arts; qin (musical instrument), qi (board game), shu (calligraphy), and hua (painting).
"This is the Imperial set made in France. No other company made sets like this one. The tops have an acetate face adhered to a bronzy flecked ebonite base. The faces are slightly concave. And the tiles are heavier than bone and bamboo or bakelite tiles. The images are very similar to what was being carved earlier in China on bone and bamboo tiles. The tiles are housed in a five drawer slotted case made of wood and covered in paper. The bottom drawer holds various colored counting sticks, pair of dice, and the original spare tiles, four in total. The set was played with using 144 tiles."
A surprise guest shares her pandemic-fueled alternate identity
Editing in the Time of COVID
Judith Euen Davis
What’s your favorite kind of donut? Do you like dogs? Do you have imaginary friends that protect you from harm? Do you have electricity on a daily basis? Can you see the expressions on peoples’ faces, or do you rely on clouds above their heads that reflect their true emotions? Do you prefer a rifle or a shotgun? Did you know there is a difference? Is your head shot always deadly? I can answer all these questions because I’ve spent the pandemic in small towns in southern Georgia and northern Florida.
So, how are you coping with a dearth of mah jongg? Many of us have become quite creative at filling the gaps created by the pandemic and the need for social distancing. Some of us have not only had to deal with a shortage of mah jongg but also an unfortunate interruption in our usual occupation. I can’t say that’s the case for me. Quarantining has opened a time slot for me to do what I like to do even more than play mah jongg: edit.
Even though my profession for thirty years was nursing education, a large part of my life was editing, even after retirement. For the last three years, I have been editor for Judith A. Barrett. She writes mysteries and survivalist science fiction set in Florida, Georgia, and other warm states near the Gulf of Mexico because that’s where she lives and roams. Her stories contain a touch of humor, relatable characters, always a murder or two, and dogs.
Judith and I have been very close friends for around twenty years. We consider ourselves separated at birth. We met through a message board when she lived in Corning, NY, and I lived in Da Burgh (Pittsburgh, PA). We got together in person after our internet introduction, but she went south, and I came west, so it’s been a long, long time. We’re great emailers. When I told Judith that John thought I should include a piece about our books in the magazine, she responded: “What we do: I write wonderful stories with southern grammar and terrible punctuation. You edit with a pocketful of commas and a magical sword.”
We’ve developed a process that works very well across 2,300 miles, from SoCal to the FL/GA line. Judith sends me a Word doc every 5,000 words/20 pages, usually about twice a week. I read the draft from page one each time because things tend to change and improve as the drafts progress. For a while, I was reading the newest part first to satisfy my curiosity before I went back to the beginning, but my discipline has improved. By the next day, I can usually return a draft of about 200 pages with my snarky comments and nitpicked punctuation and grammar. As the story gets longer, I may take another day. The quick turn-around is possible because I’m a very fast reader and editing comes first. We’re not sure if a three-hour time difference is an advantage or a disadvantage. Judith responds to my revisions; I may respond further. Sometimes, we wander off on a tangent. We always have a good time. We love Easter eggs; an Easter egg is a secret message or inside joke. We write for each other and condescend to let the public read our work.
Using this process, we’ve produced eleven novels in just over three years. Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve written six of them in 2020, and now an additional one in 2021. Our books often fall into the cozy mystery genre, of which I had never heard before we were part of it. Cozy mysteries are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence occur off stage, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. When you ask me, I define a cozy mystery as: someone is going to get killed, but until they do, everyone is having a nice time, and our violence occurs on stage.
All the books except ROAD are available in paperback at any retail store in the US or UK. While not necessarily on the store's shelf, the store can order any paperback for a customer through their normal book distribution system. DANGER IN THE ROAD is in process but not yet available.
If you register for Judith’s newsletter, there are offers for free copies on occasion. Frankly, I think they’re too good to be free.
How Online Gaming, Zoom, and Podcasts Have Become an Integral Part of American Mah Jongg
Online Mah Jongg 2.0
Julie and Phillipe, the creators of the new online gaming site, ilovemahj.com, lead us through many innovative features including being able to see and hear table mates, choosing levels of smart bots, and providing personal statistics.
What’s on your MJ game wish list…?
"Since we're not playing in person anymore, I wish there was an easy way to play online with my friends."
"I play online but coordination of the games is tedious. I wish there was a better way."
"I wish I could see and talk to my friends while I play, without having to set up Zoom or Facetime on a separate device."
"I play with bots online, but they're just not challenging enough. I wish bots were of the same caliber as real, experienced players."
"I wish the computer didn’t make decisions for me. This takes away from the mental stimulation of Mah Jongg."
..."I WISH online games felt more like a real game!"
Many players have shared comments along these lines, especially over the past year, as we’ve navigated our way through the current pandemic and sought ways to continue to safely play our beloved game.
Mah Jongg players have taken their passion online, but many feel the experience falls short of the real thing. They wish for a platform that would provide tools to facilitate getting together with their friends, the ability to see and hear their opponents, the mental stimulation they crave and the feeling of being part of a community. In short, they wish for an experience closer to reality.
Well, it seems their wish has finally come true! The recent launch of I Love Mahj (ilovemahj.com) unveiled a totally new way of playing American Mah Jongg online. In this article, we'll share with you exactly what this innovative platform has to offer, and how it provides as close to a real-life mahj experience as possible.
IT'S A SOCIAL AFFAIR
Let’s face it, Mah Jongg is not just a game, it's a social activity. People get together, not just to play, but to spend time with friends, chit-chat, and enjoy each other's company. I Love Mahj understands this, and the social aspect of the game is one of the core tenets of their philosophy.
While other platforms do allow you to play the game, they're missing the notion of community and friendship. These aspects are front and center on I Love Mahj. For instance, you can manage your list of friends and form groups that will play together regularly.
There are several very convenient ways to organize games, be they ad-hoc or scheduled, and for all group sizes. You can even plan recurring group games, the equivalent of the weekly games enjoyed prior to the pandemic.
And for those who like to meet new people and make friends, I Love Mahj organizes regular social games. You can also connect with live players at any time. And, if you meet someone you'd like to play with again, just click the heart button beneath their name to add them to your friends list. You can even jot down a note or two in their online file, to help you recall details of previous discussions.
I Love Mahj offers tools for organizing in-person games too. From who's hosting this week, to invitations, RSVPs, wait lists, or who's bringing what items, you can manage it all from the platform! So, when the pandemic is over and everyone starts playing in person once again, you’ll be able to manage these games, alongside your online ones.
In summary, I Love Mahj gives players everything they need to recreate their Mah Jongg community online, and bring back the sense of togetherness that has sadly been missing lately.
I See You, I Hear You!
Direct contact with tablemates is another critical factor that has been lacking when playing Mah Jongg online. For most players, the ability to see others' reactions, chit-chat with them, banter, joke and even brag about that great hand they just won, is as much a part of an enjoyable experience as the game itself. Some have taken to using other platforms (such as Zoom and Facetime) alongside the game. These solutions work but have their limitations, need to be set up separately and often require a second device. For players who aren’t computer-savvy, this is often too much to cope with.
On I Love Mahj, the audio/video connection is managed automatically within the game, with no extra setup. You'll see and hear players immediately once you join a game. And don't worry, you can always turn off the camera for those bad-hair or pajama days...
Mah Jongg is a challenging game and excellent exercise for the brain. Studies have shown that playing Mah Jongg keeps our brain active and reduces the chances of developing neurodegenerative conditions as we age. This very topic has recently been discussed by several guests on Fern Bernstein’s podcast, Mah Jongg Mondays.
Gray Matter Workout
The issue with some online experiences is that the computer makes playing the game far too easy, resulting in the player missing out on vital brain exercise. For instance, players might only be offered a discard when the computer knows they can take it, or the game may group discards. While these features are certainly convenient, they don't reflect a real game. They rob the player of important mental stimulation, which is all part of the Mah Jongg experience and the reason why so many people have fallen in love with this amazing game.
I Love Mahj takes a different approach. While the computer will take care of the tedious aspects (there’s no shuffling of tiles, building walls, or tidying up at the end of play), the creators went to great lengths to ensure the computer does not do any of the thinking for you. For example, for each discarded tile, you have a few seconds to make a decision to call or ignore that tile - just like in a real game. You even have the option to "hold on a minute" by pausing the game, if you require a bit more thinking time. This keeps you on your toes and allows the game to flow more naturally.
A key advantage of online games is the ability to play with computer bots. As much as we all love playing with others, bots provide a unique opportunity to hone our skills at any time. As a matter of fact, we would venture to say that most of us are better players this year than last, because we have the opportunity to play every day (all day for the most addicted among us!) and not just once a week.
However, bots are not all created equal. On some platforms, they seem to be an afterthought and don’t provide players with much of a challenge. In the spirit of keeping Mah Jongg a stimulating brain exercise, I Love Mahj has invested a great deal of time and effort into making their bots smarter. In fact, they actually went one step further and created 3 levels of bots: beginner, intermediate and advanced.
"We wanted every player, regardless of their experience, to have a challenging, but not unbeatable, partner", says Julie, co-founder of I Love Mahj. "Our Level 3 bots apply many advanced strategies and will give even the most experienced players a good run for their money!"
I See Dead Hands…
Another important aspect we’d like to highlight relates to dead hands. Keeping track of your opponent’s moves and realizing their hand is dead is all part of the mental exercise that is Mah Jongg. Some platforms will call a player’s hand dead in some cases but not others. And there is often no mechanism for someone to call another player’s hand dead if the computer does not.
When playing on I Love Mahj, the system does not automatically call anyone’s hand dead. Instead, there’s a button next to each player (including the bots) for YOU to call their hand dead. The computer will verify that the hand is indeed dead, the player will be marked dead, and the game will continue with the remaining players.
All these factors make the play feel more "real" and contribute to keeping the game the great mental challenge that it is meant to be.
Track Your Progress
As with any good workout, it’s important to have a way to measure progress. Your I Love Mahj account includes a whole page dedicated to interesting data, so you can see just how well you’re doing. Statistics include your win ratio, how fast you think, the average number of jokers received and swapped, points accrued and rating history.
There is also a representation of the card with completed hands highlighted in blue, making them easy to spot. This enables you to clearly see your Mah Jongg habits – the hands you tend to focus on the most and the areas of the card that are your least favorite. It can certainly be an eye-opener! Why not challenge yourself to complete the entire card?
ARE YOU NEW AROUND HERE?
For those who have yet to venture into the world of online Mah Jongg games, it's usually not for lack of interest, but mostly fear that it will be too complicated to figure out. Even trying a new platform can seem daunting to those who have taken the plunge. Indeed, there's always a learning curve when trying anything new.
A Helping Hand
I Love Mahj has you covered! They provide all the resources to make the transition easy. For instance, they have a complete Knowledge Base with articles covering every aspect of the platform. Better yet, it is searchable from within the game itself! So, if you don’t know how to swap a joker, just search for the word “joker”, and ta-da you will have your answer instantly!
They also have a quick-start video that covers the essentials, as well as videos demonstrating all other aspects of the platform, including how to play with friends and form communities.
I Love Mahj also has its own Facebook group that’s full of tips and useful information to ensure a smooth transition. The creators, Philippe and Julie, are very happy to answer questions and offer assistance whenever needed. You can even message them from within the game (using the Help widget).
For those who are new to American Mah Jongg, the I Love Mahj platform offers many learning resources to help you get started:
There’s even a shop offering Mah Jongg related items, including cards, sets, accessories, apparel and various tchotchkes.
Practice Makes Perfect
The "just-for-fun" mode is the perfect way for newbies to practice their skills. In this mode, games can be played with bots without affecting a player’s rating.
There’s also the option to receive hand suggestions. Players will be shown the top 5 recommended hands based on the tiles they are dealt. This is sure to help newcomers, and even experienced players, discover hands they may not even have considered. And it will certainly come in handy in April when the new card is published!
In practice mode, players can also view discarded tiles in a grouped format, making it easy to see which tiles remain in play.
Obviously, these features give the player an unfair advantage, so they are only available in “just-for-fun” mode against bots, and not in real games. However, they are a great learning tool!
So, whether you're new to the platform, to online games or American Mah Jongg in general, you will have all the resources to be successful at your fingertips!
I Love Mahj is the new kid on the online Mah Jongg block, but they are certainly not resting on their laurels. The creators are constantly improving current features and working on new ones.
"We're here to serve the Mah Jongg community", says Philippe, co-founder of I Love Mahj. "We listen to our members and improve the site based on their feedback. We’re very receptive to suggestions, so feel free to get in touch and tell us what you think and what else you’d like to see (no matter how crazy your idea may sound!)".
So, give I Love Mahj a try – there’s a 2-week FREE trial. And why not let your iMAHJination run wild and let them know what else you wish for! I Love Mahj has proven that with a bit of ingenuity, anything is possible.
I Love Mahj was created by husband-and-wife team, Philippe and Julie. Feel free to email them anytime at email@example.com.
Mah Jongg Mondays Podcasts
Become Wildly Popular
Created and helmed by Fern Bernstein, Mah Jongg Mondays podcasts have covered an amazingly impressive number of topics and personalities since their launch in March, 2020.
What in the world is a podcast? The technical definition is: a digital audio file made available on the internet for downloading to a computer or mobile device. Podcasts are usually available as a series in which listeners can subscribe to and automatically receive the newest episode. It is the combination of the two words iPod and broadcast creating a new word for our vernacular…podcast.
What does a podcast have to do with mah jongg? Podcast host and author Fern Bernstein took her love of the game into the podcast arena, having the only weekly podcast available to for mah jongg enthusiasts. Fern launched Mah Jongg Mondays in March of 2020, and to date has over 25,000 downloads with topics ranging from the history of mah jongg, new card analysis, the sisterhood, brotherhood and friendships that form around the mahj table, to etiquette and table rules.
Fern has had the opportunity to interview a range of guests including mah jongg teachers, creators of mah jongg related products and set designers, authors, and men and women who just love to play and talk about the game of mah jongg.
“Everyone has a story,” Fern says, “and we hear how each of my guests were lured to the tiles and the game of mah jongg.”
Fern has interviewed historian Annelise Heinz, author Karen Gooen, the maven of mah jongg Gladys Grad, Where the Winds Blow founder Fay Sher, and MJ Diva magazine creator John Davis, among dozens of other guess. Every episode concludes with a tip or strategy for listeners as a takeaway and conversation to ponder, learn from and be entertained by.
Fern hopes listeners enjoy this platform as a medium to promote her love and enthusiasm for the game. You can listen on your phone as you are walking your dog, strolling on the beach, or driving in your car. You can listen on your ipad or PC too. Podcasts are so easy and accessible. Simply download the app on your mobile device and type Mah Jongg Mondays in the search bar.
If you have a podcast episode idea, please email Fern at firstname.lastname@example.org. She loves to hear from podcast listeners or readers of her book Mah Jongg Mondays: a memoir about friendship, faith, and love.
If you are new to podcasts, tap the link below and listen to Fern’s engaging and entertaining conversation with John Davis. LINK
Zoom, Online Gaming Tournaments, Social Media, and
YouTube Combine to Build a Mah Jongg Community
Donna Miller Kassman & Dara Collins
In March 2020, in-person mahjong play came to a halt. For many players, mahjong is a large part of their social interaction. We recognized the ability of technology to help connect players who are socially distanced. We used Zoom and social media and hosted virtual tournaments across several online mahjong websites to pivot during the current pandemic.
ZOOM and SOCIAL MEDIA
We have hosted numerous Zoom Talks, events and games where players can join us live for interactive discussions and events. Since our online mahjong community is made of players who play several styles of mahjong, we strive to host guests and topics that appeal to this diverse audience. Some examples of our Zoom events include:
· Trivia Night where players challenge their knowledge of mahjong;
· Talks with mahjong instructors and authors including Toby Salk, Gregg Swain, Barney Gallassio, Linda Feinstein and Linda Fischer;
· Virtual Vintage where we share mahjong sets from amazing mahjong collections;
· Strategy sessions with Bubbe Fischer including Charleston Challenge and Mahjong Makeover to improve National Mah Jongg League strategies;
· Zoom Talk with Tony Watson about the history of mahjong, restoration and painting of mahjong tiles and boxes.
We share details about the upcoming events including the Zoom link to join them on social media as well as the Event tab of ModernMahjong.com. Since we incur the costs to host all of these free events, we are limited to the first 100 participants on our Zoom events. After our Zoom events, we share replays of our Zoom events on our YouTube channel (youtube.com/ModernMahjong)
We set out to see how technology could connect players that play online by National Mah Jongg League rules through virtual tournaments. There were wonderful tournaments on MahjongTime; however, we knew several players that played on other online platforms such as RealMahjongg, MyJongg.net and the NMJL online game who wanted to compete and play in virtual mahjong tournaments as well. Players can read more and register on ModernMahjong.com.
We were faced with the challenge of leveling the playing field for players across several platforms. Since August 2019, we have hosted monthly tournaments and even hosted a bonus New Year's Eve Tournament. We are proud to have originated the format, rules and score sheets to accommodate tournament play on all of these websites simultaneously.
Players can play at any website with their foursome at their convenience during the course of the tournament to compete for gift card prizes. We adjusted the scoring for calling hands dead since at the time, RealMahjongg. does not have the ability to call another player's hand dead (exciting news: Ronnie Rogoff, one of the owners of RealMahjongg said they are rolling this feature out soon!) Additionally, we created the rule that players with a bot at their table are not competing for the large gift card prizes since bots don't play with the same skill and strategy as live players.
We have always enjoyed connecting with mahjong players on Instagram, our Modern Mahjong Facebook page and our Mahjong Community Facebook group. As a way to spotlight different types of mahjong players and to show mahjong in movies and television, we created several series including #whyImahj, #menthatmahj and #funMahjongFindFriday. We share these videos on YouTube.com/ModernMahjong for players that are not on Facebook to enjoy.
We strongly believe in giving to charitable organizations. Since our first virtual mahjong tournament, a percentage of the proceeds have been donated to charities including the Alzheimer's Association, The Women's Alzheimer's Movement, The ALS Association, The Tutu Project which is a nonprofit organization that provides financial & emotional support for breast cancer patients, Good Karma Pet Rescue of South Florida, The Actors Fund and Gilda's Club of Westchester, NY.
We are impressed by how many mahjong players have adapted to technology. Players that have never played mahjong online before the pandemic have learned to play online, compete in our tournaments and join our Zoom Talks. One news article even gave this new type of player the nickname "gray gamers." We look forward to returning to in-person play but, in the meantime, see you on our Modern Mahjong Zoom Talks and at our virtual mahjong tournaments!
Peace Love Mahjong,
Dara and Donna
Upcoming events include:
· February 11-15, 2021 I ❤️ Mah Jongg Tournament
· February 24, 2021 Modern Mahjong Virtual Vintage Zoom series continues with sneak peeks into fabulous collections
· March 18-21, 2021 Modern Mahjong March virtual mahjong tournament
· March 31, 2021 (tentative date) 2021 NMJL Card Review with Barney Gallassio
AMERICAN MAH JONGG VENTURES NOW OPEN!
Debbie Barnett and Michele Frizzell, long time American mah jongg instructors partnered together to form American Mah Jongg Ventures, LLC (AMJV). AMJV offers education, certification, memberships, and events to mah jongg enthusiasts.
“For years, Chess, Bridge and even Canasta has had a program to certify their instructors, while American mah jongg has not. Now, the American Mah Jongg Instructor Association (AMJIA), a division of AMJV, offers mah jongg instructors a way to be recognized in a way they deserve. Although we are not affiliated with the NMJL, our program adheres to their guidelines and rules,” said Debbie Barnett, AMJV Co-Founder.
To bring greater awareness of the game to Americans, AMJV will be hosting annual conferences called, "MahjCon" where mah jongg enthusiasts will celebrate and develop their interests in the game. “MahjCon has been a dream of mine for years. We have designed the conference to appeal to players, instructors, group leaders, tournament directors, and collectors. It’s exciting to see the response from the community,” said Michele Frizzell, AMJV Co-Founder.
An Interview with a Joker Sticker Maker
Tell us a bit about yourself and your business, how you got started, etc.
I love mah jongg and had several old sets that needed jokers. So I made my own jokers and missing tile faces. Because I've received compliments and purchases, I decided to offer them on eBay and Etsy about two and half years ago.
What are some problems that you had to solve in producing stickers?
Well, I’ve had to do a lot of testing initially and learn which images work best when made small enough to fit on a tile. These stickers are not printed and die cut by a manufacturer. They are handmade and printed at my home with an inkjet printer. There’s an advantage in that I can adapt the size and colors to meet individual needs. I also cut out each sticker by hand.
What are your most popular stickers?
Most of my images have been ordered. The styles vary considerably so it’s hard to say which are the most popular. Some people like the traditional jokers that were manufactured with the Bakelite sets. Other people favor the art deco images. Animals and geisha are popular, too.
How often do you get special requests?
Fairly frequently. I offer custom jokers as one of my products. I’ve made stickers from a variety of images customers send me. Photographs of pets are popular. Some people have a theme in mind for which they want me to find an image.
I also get requests to match missing suit tiles. And sometimes I need to enlarge or reduce the size of the sticker to match someone’s set.
In one case, I was trying to make missing suit stickers for an old wooden set. I try to get the backgrounds as close to the color of the tiles when possible even though I’m working on glossy label stock. In this case I added grainy texture to the background to mimic the wood.
What are your plans for the future?
I love finding old images (such as fine art and old Japanese woodblocks) and adapting them into jokers. I enjoy working with people on custom jokers or in trying to match the right existing image to their sets. I plan to continue making stickers. I’m thrilled that people like my products.
How has the pandemic has affected your business?
Surprisingly, sheltering-in-place hasn’t slowed down my business. Players are still ordering jokers stickers despite not being able to use their sets to play in person. Some orders are from collectors and sellers who often acquire sets needing jokers.
Mahj on My Mind Merchandise
Every Mahj Jongg player will find something to love in the 40 collections of over 500 items ranging from tote bags, jewelry, and luggage tags, to phone cases, shirts, earrings, and note cards. Perfect as gifts, tournament prizes, or home decor.