For some people, Chinese New Year means fireworks. For others it means lion dances. For many, it means family get-togethers and copious amounts of food. For me, it means Mahjong.
Mahjong and I go back a long way.
I am a toddler at my mother’s knee. She would play Mahjong with fellow South-East Asian friends, and chat and reminisce and gossip, while I would imagine the circles on the tiles were wheels on cars and trucks, going round and round.
I am six. I am an Australian kid running around a Malaysian house during Chinese New Year, foreign languages ringing in my ears, as the adults clicked and clacked the tiles. When they were finished, the other kids and I would build towers and forts out of Mahjong tiles.
I am thirteen. I am hooked on playing Hong Kong Mahjong. This is when the rules of Mahjong were formalised in my head. File this under: “things I learned from video games”.
I am a teenager. I am prodigal son, gambling frequently with buddies from school, and frittering away what little pocket-money I had at their houses on weekends.
I am nineteen. A few months ago, I found God and gave up gambling, but now I realise that Mahjong is a language—the only language—I share with my grandmother. I speak English and barely anything else. My grandmother speaks only Hokkien Chinese.
So this is now where I play all of my Mahjong. All the Hokkien I’ve ever learnt, I learned here. We call any money lost at the table, “paying tribute to grandmother“. It’s not gambling anymore. I would gladly give away all this money, and more, to spend more time with my grandmother.
I am twenty-three. My grandfather has passed away, and at the wake there is crying, and laughter, and stories, and drinking, and mahjong. I sit at a table, most of the Chinese going right over my head, and play so long that when I stumble to my hotel, the doors are locked, and the nightwatchman is nowhere to be seen. I head back to my grandmothers house and play more Mahjong, and end up sleeping on the floor.
And this past Christmas, I am thirty-seven. We’ve made another journey back to tropical Malaysia, so I can sit again at my grandmother’s Mahjong table. But my five-year-old daughter is clambering on my lap, wanting to read the tiles and build towers and forts out of the tiles. Mahjong is a game of circles and cycles.
Mahjong the game
Mahjong is a decidedly elegant game. The game has been around for at least a hundred years, and in somewhat different forms before that. It has stood the test of time.
There is a beauty and poetry to the game. It relies on ebbs and flows, even as the Winds (the bonus values of the seats) and the rounds rotate. One person’s fortune can often lead to a chain reaction, as people collects sets around the table.
The game is similar in form to rummy. Going around the circle, players take turns to draw and discard tiles, trying to collect sets: runs, three-of-a-kind, or four-of-a-kind. If you can form a set, you can take another player’s discard, otherwise you draw from a slowly diminishing wall. When one player collects four sets and a pair, they declare themselves the winner.
I love the tactile nature of a game. At school, we played with a rare set of Mahjong cards, but riffling cards doesn’t have the same romance as the clicking, clacking and stacking of tiles. There is a music to the game, and the process of shuffling the tiles, pushing them noisily around the table, is called washing the tiles, because it sounds like running water.
The game is both collective and collaborative. You work together to shuffle the tiles, to build the walls, to deal and distribute the tiles to one another, to manage the space and make everything accessible.
Mahjong is a game to be played with friends, not enemies.
Mahjong and being Chinese
I want my kids to learn to play Mahjong. It’s part of their cultural heritage. Although there are many similarities with gin rummy, it is also an undeniably Chinese game.
Approximately half of the cards have Chinese characters. Although some of them are easy to guess, others are difficult. My Anglo-Saxon wife is a competent player, but still needs to consult a Chinese cheat sheet. The cards also reflects Chinese sensibilities: one of the suits is bamboo, and the Jade dragon (the green dragon) lurks.
It goes beyond language though. A Chinese way of thinking is encoded in the tiles. The significant tiles are the four winds: North, South, East and West. But in the Chinese pantheon, East is predominant, and then it moves clockwise around the compass: South, West, and then North. But, balance in all things, for, mysteriously, the game flows counter-clockwise around the table.
Another significant tile is the Red Dragon, which has the Chinese word for centre or middle in it. China, in Chinese, is The Middle Kingdom, for all else revolves around it. Also, the colour red had cultural significance for us well before it was appropriated by the communists. In the game, we work together to build a wall—a great wall—and like certain other famous walls, it’s always uncertain if it’s for keeping things out, or keeping things in.
Everything in the game is balanced, and as the turn moves around, as the winds rotate, everyone and everything moves with a give and take. My turns impact you, which impact your neighbour. There are times when the cards flow, and times when nothing comes to you at all. There is a delicate dance, a circular balance of yin and yang around the table.
Like the Chinese, Mahjong is frequently adaptable, and there are different flavours and dialects of Mahjong. You can play Mahjong with British expatriates from Hong Kong, in the sweltering heat in Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur or Manila. You could join The National Mah Jongg League, an American Jewish organisation, and play in their tournaments. You would play it at weddings, play it at funerals, and definitely at Chinese New Year.
Although the game is the same, it is coloured by different special hands and different scoring. Hong Kong style rules are more flashy and flamboyant. There are more special hands, and the scoring leads you to crafting beautiful and elegant hands that score exponentially. Winner takes all.
By contrast, my grandmother’s rules are sparse and simple. The only special hand is peng hú, which hearkens even further back in time to a predecessor of the game. Scores are counted on one hand, and there’s a lot more give and take. You can win money even when you lose the game, if your cards are good. But luck also counts for a lot. Ultimately, the person who wins the most consistently will walk home with a profit.
Mahjong and Life lessons
My grandmother is ninety-two. She is Madame Chew Gin Kee. In a room where almost everyone has more letters after their name than in their name (our last name is very short), my illiterate, uneducated, grandmother might still be the sharpest person in the room at 92.
As she plays Mahjong, she sits and watches her soap opera, drinks her tea, and knows exactly what tiles you’re holding, and exactly why what you just did was a criminally irresponsible mistake.
As they say in a different game, she doesn’t miss a trick.
With a magnificent set of tiles before me, and eager to press for an even grander finishing hand, I carelessly (and needlessly) throw away a tile that gives the game away to my brother. My grandmother then spends at least ten minutes lecturing me about being too greedy, and how I should have been more careful. She probably thinks I am profligate and irresponsible in real life.
She is only wrong by degrees. These are life lessons I should have learned a long time ago.
The night before, we had heard about her past, about struggling through difficult jobs and difficult times, working multiple jobs with small children, and raising ten (TEN!) children. These days, she is supported by children and grandchildren who are, by and large, wealthy professionals. She lives with all her worldly cares taken care of. Nevertheless, a lifestyle of earnest endeavour means she can never sit still. She sends away any maid we ever hire. She still wakes at daybreak, and cooks and bakes, mends and makes, scrimps and saves, continuing a lifestyle of frugality, and eschewing extravagance.
So my grandmother plays Mahjong the way she lives. She is canny and sharp and watches every card. She has a preternatural ability to read your discards, understand what’s in your hand, and then, thriftily deny you of any card that is of value to you. She almost never plays for big hands, but grinds away for small but steady profit. She plays a defensive game, winning by not losing. She is such a dominant player that we have an entire meta-game devoting to playing around grandmother. Woe betide the player sitting downwind, because they will reap nothing through the game.
Me, I play recklessly. I win big, but lose big. Patience is not, and never will be my strong suit. So I sit, overanalyse, and then shrug and make a gut decision. More often than not, it is a careless move. Nevertheless, my cards are meticulously ordered, because I have systems to keep my life from descending into excessive chaos. In the game, as in life, I try not to leave a trail of destruction.
My mother claims she is an erratic player, but as in life, she’s undervalues her quality. She plays nervously, bemoans missed chances, and is despondent about her chances, but then will win three games in a row. Despite her struggles with anxiety, she does all right in the game and in life.
Mahjong, the game
Mahjong is worth your time. Find a friend who has a Mahjong set, and ask them to teach you how to play. Sit around and drink some tea. Play and talk. Mahjong is an experience, not just a game. Chinese New Year is the best time to experience it.
I’ll admit that Mahjong is not for everyone. Some people want more strategy than luck, and some people want direct conflict rather than subtle interactions. Some people want more theme in their board games, and more maths. I like those games too, but there’s a time and a place for everything.
But Mahjong is a game, and games are powerful. Games have this power to bring people together. To transcend nations and borders, countries and tribes, families and language. Play games with your children, and one day you might play with your children’s children, and it will be glorious.
One day, my children will play Mahjong with their grandmother. One day we’ll congregating around my mother’s house at Chinese New Year, eating food and playing mahjong, and drinking deep from our cultural spring. We’ll sit in a circle around the table, and the cycle of life will continue.
This post was originally published in January 2017, and has been retimed following the recent passing of the author’s grandmother who is referenced throughout this story.