August 14, 2003
Maahj Cracks Fashionistas
What, you may be asking yourself, is the next hot trend? The style universe looks to Los Angeles in general, and this column in particular, for those cutting-edge trends that define the culture. No wonder this column has become such a favorite of trendsetters and fashionistas everywhere. (Nonetheless, I continue to deny "sexing up" reports for W, Ingrid Sischy, Kal Ruttenstein, Bonnie Fuller or Hello! Magazine -- no matter what the BBC claims.)
But back to the future: A movement is happening. L.A. women -- for whom kabbalah is so two years ago -- who've been wearing Havaiana flip-flops since way before last summer, are meeting all over town. They're finished with health clubs, they're beyond personal trainers. They may have their own yoga mats, but they've long abandoned Yoga Works, Bikram and Maha Yoga and moved on to a smaller studio you haven't heard of -- yet. They no longer care about Manolos, think Jimmy Choos are for "Sex and the City" clones and Sigerson Morrison was yesterday. They're over with Burberry's plaids. No. No. No. So what are the relentlessly trendy up to?
What they are doing is playing mahjongg. That's right. The American version of the ancient Chinese tile game once played by old ladies in Miami Beach is now the passion of the beyond-fashion-forward women in Los Angeles. I refer, of course, to my wife and her friends. Listen closely, and you'll hear the click clack of tiles and hands moving around the table.
I date the current mahjongg explosion to the moment when Jill Nadlman's monthly all-woman poker game decided to learn "maahj," as they call it. They're in so deep they started a separate maahj evening. Word got around. Suddenly maahj is everywhere.
There's a game happening over breakfast at the Kinara Spa and Cafe on Robertson Boulevard. Someone's got a room at the Bel Air Hotel for afternoon games. Last week, there was a lunch at a private home in Beverly Hills. You won't be surprised to hear that a group of übermoms from the Center for Early Education have a group. Or that the A-list at Brentwood needed to have their own. It is spreading -- fast.
Which is why I am sitting in Johnni Levene's home in Rustic Canyon. Levene collects and deals in antique mahjongg sets. She has offered to show me her collection and give me a little tutorial in the "chirping sparrows" (mahjongg).
Mahjongg for the uninitiated, is a Chinese game with beginnings some attribute to Confucius himself. It was introduced to the English clubs in Shanghai in the early 1900s by two brothers named White. In 1920, Standard Oil's man in Soochow, Joseph Babcock, came up with a standardized set of rules for Americans. By 1923, the craze was so big that sales of mahjongg sets topped $1.5 million in the United States.
Levene is an obsessive collector -- her prior obsessions have included vintage aquarium mermaids (made in Japan in the 1950s), Victorian butterfly jewelry and Enid Collins purses. Five years ago, she spotted her first mahjongg set at a flea market. What she saw delighted and horrified her. She loved the artistry of the hand carved tiles, but someone had drilled holes in them to make them into bracelets. Levene now had a mission: She would rescue mahjongg sets from the drillers. Several hundred sets later, she is making headway.
The Chinese game was played with 144 tiles, the American is now played with 152 (144 plus eight jokers). Herein lies where collectors go crazy: some sets are incomplete. In some, the tiles have aged poorly. Levene lists the main criteria as: condition, color, artistry and rarity. What Levene does is restore and complete the sets, sometimes restoring not only the tiles, but the cradles they sit in and the cases that hold them. Like all things worth collecting, each can be a work of art.
There are more than 300 sets in Levene's mahjongg room. Although sets have been made in bone, celluloid, ivory (mostly traveling sets) and modern plastics, Levene's favorites are the bakelite/catalin sets, which were discontinued in the 1960s. Levene's vintage sets run anywhere from $100 to $950. In her own collection, the holy grail is "enrobed" sets that feature two colors, one encircling the other.
Why mahjongg now? Levene suggest two reasons. First, after Sept. 11, more people wanted to stay in or entertain privately, and second, as she says, "It's hard for girls to find something to do together." (Better she says it than me.)
Levene is on to something: in Los Angeles a Chinese/Jewish tile game, played by our ancestors, creates bonds between women and history that no spiritual or athelitic trend can.
Personally, I was hoping the whole "pole dancing as exercise" fad was going to catch on. But fashion serves a fickle master. Right now the craze is for maahj. In Los Angeles, as Don Henley's buddy, Thoreau, once said: "We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion."
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.