Jewish Journal

From China to your card table

by Jonathan Maseng

Posted on May. 30, 2012 at 11:23 am

Women playing mah jongg in the Catskills, circa 1960. From the collection of Harvey Abrams.

Women playing mah jongg in the Catskills, circa 1960. From the collection of Harvey Abrams.

American pop culture is filled with ethnic cuisines, art and games that have traversed the veritable chasm from curiosity to mainstream success. From burritos to sushi, Sudoku to surfing, many once-exotic fads have become part of the tapestry of American life. And though some of these fade from the scene — does anyone remember when jai alai was all the rage? — what may be most unusual is the fad that starts off being popular in one ethnic group, achieves national fervor and then fades, only to have a new and enduring life within a completely different ethnic group. This is the story of mah jongg.

Mah jongg is a game of Chinese origin in which four players attempt to create a winning hand from a set of tiles they’re given at the start of the game, drawing and discarding tiles until they win. The card game Rummy is thought to have descended from mah jongg, through a complicated ancestry that leads through Mexico, of all places. 

At the turn of the 20th century, mah jongg had almost no presence in the United States. It wasn’t until 1920, when Joseph Park Babcock, an American who’d spent a number of years living in China, helped to popularize the game in the United States. Many of the first mah jongg sets in America were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch, which was then a sporting and gaming retailer, a far cry from the hip clothier with shirtless employees that it has become.

Mah jongg became a big hit among women in the States. People wrote songs about it. It was referenced in film. And then its popularity died down, except among one group — Jewish women. Something about mah jongg appealed to these women, who have carried its torch through today, transforming it from something uniquely Chinese to something amusingly Jewish.

For the Skirball Cultural Center’s Erin Clancey, mah jongg’s unique cross-cultural journey is what made it such an appealing subject for an exhibition. “It finds a connection between the Jewish cultural experience in America and the Chinese-American cultural experience. It finds the common bond between two communities that one might not have ever imagined had a connection.”

The connection is quite evident in the Skirball’s show, “Project Mah Jongg,” which originated at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Display cases highlight the evolution of mah jongg from original Chinese bone sets in ornate wooden boxes to the thoroughly American sets of the modern era. Photographs and drawings, some created specifically for the exhibition, highlight mah jongg’s influence on the American cultural scene.

Illustration by Bruce McCall for “Mah Jongg: Crak, Bam, Dot,” a 2wice Books publication.

“The popularity of mah jongg has really waxed and waned since the 1920s, and it’s on the upswing again,” Clancey said. “There are a number of factors involved [in the resurgence]. I think certainly [one factor is] the beauty of the game, the tiles themselves — there’s a certain stylishness to it, a certain sophistication and beauty to it.”

But more than just visual appeal, Clancey says, is how mah jongg brings women together. “It’s also an expression, I think, of the yearning to return to a close-knit community.” Mah jongg is an incredibly social game. Women would get together, play, eat and drink, and that comes out in the items on display.

“I tend to really enjoy the oldest pieces,” said Clancey. “There’s a set imported into the U.S. via San Francisco ... by Joseph Babcock.”

Clancey also has a particular affinity for an artwork prepared for the show by an American artist. “I love the painting by Bruce McCall because it’s just hilarious. He imagines Chinese elders passing on the tradition of mah jongg to a group of women in Miami Beach in the 1950s.”

In a nod to mah jongg’s appeal as a communal experience, the Skirball is encouraging women — and men, for that matter — to play the game at the museum with their friends after touring the exhibition. “There are a number of ways that groups can come and play mah jongg in the show or around the Skirball campus. To play inside the gallery, inside the exhibition, and become a part of the exhibition, you can reserve the table through our admission desk.”

Clancey also expects there may be some interest in the show from L.A.’s large Chinese-American community. “I know that we have colleagues at the Chinese American Museum, and we are considering ... having cultural exchange, taking our American mah jongg game down to Chinatown and some of the mah jongg parlors there ... and inviting Chinese-American mah jongg players up to the Skirball.”

If the Chinese players do show up at the Skirball, some accommodations will have to be made, according to Clancey. “Interestingly, the Chinese version of mah jongg and the American version are very different. So in terms of standardizing rules, there’s a bit of diplomacy required.”

More than anything, though, Clancey wants people to enjoy on a deeper level a game that has been entertaining Jewish women for generations. 

“I hope also when they’re here they will connect to the history of the game and see it as more than just a pastime, a game — that it’s really a way to build community and to elicit really warm memories of days gone by.”

Project Mah Jongg will be on display at the Skirball Cultural Center through Sept.  2.

For more information and a calendar of events surrounding the exhibition visit http://www.skirball.org.

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