Mahjong Image by zhy645624339 from Pixabay
Mahjong Image by zhy645624339 from Pixabay

What Made Mahjong Click with Suburban Americans?

In Annelise Heinz’s cultural history, ‘Mahjong’, the role of games tells more significant stories than simply recording how we use our leisure time.

Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture
Annelise Heinz
Oxford University Press
May 2021

For many Jewish American women who are Baby Boomers or GenXers, the sound of clicking mahjong tiles, the laughter of mothers gathered around the table, and probably the cloud of cigarette smoke was all part of growing up. That a Chinese game that appears similar to dominos was a mainstay of some suburban homes in the 1970s was unquestioned. Mahjong, like so many other aspects of everyday life, was just, simply, there. Annelise Heinz set out to determine how it got there in her thorough cultural history, Mahjong.

Much of the game’s migration begins with Joseph Park Babcock, who worked for Standard Oil in Shanghai in the 1920s. Babcock founded the Mah-Jongg Sales Company of America and brought the game to Catalina Island in 1920, when he was vacationing there among other wealthy Angelenos. The quick growth of mahjong fit neatly with an interest in Asian-inspired goods and housewares across the United States in the early 1920s. Along with its “Orientalist” appeal, mahjong also gained popularity as a game indicating status, much like bridge, because it required leisure time and intellectual investment to master.

Heinz argues that the vast array of accessories to use in gameplay or simply to extend the aesthetic of mahjong were reductionist and racist portrayals of Chinese life. Even in the 1920s, women played a primary role in mahjong’s popularity in the United States. As women were primary family shoppers, they purchased sets, taught their families to play, and organized social events with mahjong as entertainment.

The version of mahjong that became popular among US expatriates in China developed in Shanghai as a gambling game in the 1890s. As enthusiasm grew for mahjong, so did criticism. Because the game was played by courtesans and those who sought their attention, mahjong was associated with illicit lifestyles. Others saw it as a decadent use of leisure time that could be better spent on self-improvement. Yet, in the International Settlement in Shanghai, mahjong quickly became a way to bridge cultures and find a common pleasurable pastime.

Heinz notes that mahjong’s early association with urban sophistication and the integration of women into leisure society influenced the ways the game was appreciated in the United States.

Although the prestige associated with mahjong led to a common belief that the tiles were made of ivory, most mahjong tiles were made from bone. Nonetheless, the desire for expensive artisanal sets decimated the population of elephants and walruses whose tusks were used to craft mahjong tiles. One retailer described its bone tiles as “ivory-white”, readily misleading customers. As demand for mahjong sets continued to grow, factories in China and the United States began using a plastic known as “French ivory” to mold tiles.

Parker Brothers bought the Mah-Jongg Company’s trademark in 1923 and began to produce sets that were more cheaply made and sold at a lower cost. Heinz argues that “authenticity” was central to American mahjong culture. Authenticity, actually, was fabricated by manufacturers and advertisers determined to associate mahjong with traditional Orientalist ideals rather than the contemporary reality of China. Marketers in the US fabricated stories to glorify their role in bringing the ancient game to modern audiences.

As American interests fought one another for claims of authenticity, young Chinese Americans grew increasingly frustrated with cultural appropriation. Progressive political groups saw an opportunity to use mahjong to shift negative racist perceptions of Chinese people. Heinz considers mahjong and its social consequences for Asian Americans, African Americans, and elite white women.

Because mahjong is a gambling game both in China and in some instances in the United States, Asian Americans were often perceived as decadent while African Americans risked arrest for gambling, whether they were playing for money or simply for pleasure. Among urban, elite Asian Americans, mahjong could be a financial boon for those interested in offering instruction to white women and men.

Heinz also details the process of mahjong’s gendering in the 1920s, showing that the game was thoroughly feminized by the time its initial surge of popularity ended. Orientalist perspectives in the West saw China as alien and sexualized, and through association with mahjong, costumes, and decor, women could align themselves with those cultural qualities while also maintaining their respectability.

Another tract of critique against mahjong’s influence was in seeing the game as a distraction for women who neglected their household and family responsibilities. One of Heinz’s examples is the offensive lyrics to Eddie Cantor’s song “Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong,” in which “Pa went out and killed a ‘Chink’” because “Ma left dishes in the sink.”

The studies of cultural history in Mahjong are thorough, particularly in recreating life in the United States and in China during the 1920s. The faddish popularity of mahjong among white Americans began to fade as early as 1924, yet remained a mainstay for many Chinese Americans. Heinz argues that because of its history, mahjong could represent their cultural continuity and assimilation at the same time. Interestingly, many Chinese long-term residents and Chinese Americans by birth learned mahjong along with other Americans in the 1920s.

Heinz traces the patterns of assimilation and cultural separation for Chinese Americans through the Depression and into the World War II era of immigrant detention and interrogation, specifically at Angel Island in San Francisco. For those being held in camps, mahjong was an escape from the stress and humiliation experienced every day.

Heinz also devotes a chapter to mahjong in Japanese internment camps, where the game played an important role in socialization, at times seeing tournaments as a way of structuring limited leisure time. At some camps, mahjong was restricted or outlawed because of the likelihood that it would be a site for gambling as well as a game of skill.

For American, and primarily Jewish women, who played mahjong, 1937 was a landmark year for the game with the founding of the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL). The League set out to codify new, uniquely American rules for the game, eventually establishing a standard set of tiles that were manufactured primarily in New York, rather than in China. By 1941, the League had more than 35,000 members. As the groupings of primarily middle-class and upper-middle-class Jewish women proliferated, mahjong became firmly associated with them. The League also shifted authority in mahjong from men to women.

Heinz’s detailed study explains how a game of Chinese origin became an ethnic and cultural touchpoint for postwar American Jewish women. Throughout her narratives, Heinz focuses on how mahjong created social connection and community, among Chinese immigrants, African American social clubs, Japanese Americans in internment camps, and suburban Jewish women. In Mahjong, the cultural role of games tells more significant stories than simply recording how we use our leisure time.

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