Uncovering Roots: How Mahjong Connects a Third-Generation Straits-Chinese to their Heritage - Oh My Mahjong

Uncovering Roots: How Mahjong Connects a Third-Generation Straits-Chinese to their Heritage

Can you start off by telling me a bit about yourself and how you were introduced to mahjong?

My name is Shahan, I'm from Melbourne, Australia, and mahjong has always been a part of my life in one way or another. My family is straits-born Chinese, from Malaysia & Singapore, and part of Straits-Chinese life was playing games like mahjong & cherki (which is a card-game similar to mahjong). 

Our family doctor went to university with my aunt. She was studying accounting, he was studying medicine, so he became our family GP by default. As a result, we used to go to his house a LOT when I was a kid, and I would play with his son and our friends, and my cousins, all together...and in the background, there was always someone playing mahjong. Money changed hands - you'd see the stacks of banknotes on the table, etc.

At what point did you start playing Mahjong and what made you interested in the game?

My uncles used to give my mother mahjong sets as gifts. I have no idea why - as far as I know, she never played. But we had at least two mahjong sets in the house when I was growing up. She'd fly home to Malaysia to visit our relations, and she'd fly home to Melbourne and there'd be another mahjong set in her luggage. Either way When I was about...14? 15? I think? I was at school one day and I was talking to a friend, and somehow, the subject of mahjong came up - likely, he brought it up first, and he asked me - do I know how to play? No. Would I like to? Do I have a set? etc.

I said yes, I have like three sets at home (the ones my mother was given as gifts). My friend's mother wouldn't let him play mahjong ("Waste your time gambling! Urgh!") so he didn't have a set, but he loved playing. He begged me, so I smuggled one of my mother's sets out of the house one day and carried it to school in a little plastic toolbox-type thing, and we went to the library on campus, to play.

We found a table in the corner, and he started showing me how to bulid the walls, set up the tiles...he taught me Japanese mahjong - Richii-style, but that's not what I play today. But the Chinese kids were like "Oh, are you playing mahjong??...Can I join?” So that was when I really started to PLAY the game. And I got interested in it, really, because it's so unlike any other kind of game. It's easy to learn, it's easy to play, but at the same time, it's also complex. And it's uniquely Chinese, which made me want to learn it.

We kept the mahjong set hidden in my locker at school, and every lunchtime, we'd play in the library. We did that nonstop for like...3, 4 years? Until we graduated.

The teachers never stopped us, so we just kept playing.

Can you share any memorable stories or experiences from your childhood playing Mahjong with family or friends?

I never played mahjong with family. Nobody in my family ever played. My parents don't play, my brother isn't interested, so far as I know, my cousins don't play...I don't know any of my aunts or uncles - either here in Australia or in Malaysia / Singapore, who play. When I was growing up, the people who played around me were folks like - my family doctor's relations. His mother, her friends, his cousins, etc.So finding partners to play with was (and remains) a constant struggle.And they wanted hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars for them.By this time, I was busy trying to make a side-hustle out of being an antiques dealer, so I went to my local auction-house every week to see what was on sale. And one day, by chance, I saw that sitting on a shelf. I pulled it all out and counted up the tiles, and I thought - this is my only chance to get something like this. The price is JUST about what I can afford. It's a full 144-tile set - and I was the only bidder who was truly interested in it - and I got to carry it home with me.

Could you explain what ignited your fascination with the historical aspect of mahjong? Given your purchase of the ancient tiles, it seems that you have a genuine love for the historical element.

I always loved history and antiques, from a very young age. I always wanted to know where stuff came from, how it came to be, what happened to it, etc. And that naturally, I guess, just...extended to mahjong, too.As I said earlier - Mahjong is a uniquely Chinese game. It was invented in China, it uses Chinese characters, and such, and I wanted to know where and how the game came to be.

Like a lot of people I assumed it had ancient mystical origins - because everyone thinks Chinese stuff has ancient, mystical origins. So I started researching and reading, back in the early 2010s. I came across Gregg Swain's website, and videos by Annalise heinz…. and I read just about everything in Gregg's website.

One area that really interested me - that surprised me, kind of, was the Western fascination with mahjong. I really got fascinated by the idea that Europeans and mericans were so "into" the game, especially at the time when it happened. In the late 1800s early 1900s, there was a HUGE explosion of interest in all things "oriental".

Remember, this is before airplanes. A steamer trip to Shanghai or Hong Kong took weeks to complete, so most people had never even been to China. But, there were expat communities there, nonetheless. In Hong Kong, Shanghai, Peking, in Singapore & Malaya where my family was from. So Westerners had only the vaguest notions of what "Oriental" was. Unless you lived in one of those expat communities - your knowledge of the Far East was super limited in those days. And suddenly in the 1910s, 1920s, mahjong suddenly becomes this insane craze that sweeps the world - and it always amazed me that this was the case - because finding out about the game would not have been easy - getting your hands on a set would not have been easy, and finding out how to play the game would not have been easy.

When you think of what race-relations were like in those days, it makes it even more incredible. That was what really fascinated me. Nonetheless, the vogue for all things "Asian" was insane, even though a lot of these people didn't have one iota of actual knowledge about what any of it was. Their views of Asian culture were "silk, tea, pointy hats and chopsticks". Maybe they'd eaten chop-suey once, and that was it. But suddenly, mahjong enters the scene and everyone goes nuts over it. The contrast between - being very interested or fascinated, but knowing nothing about it, while also harbouring quite intense racism in those days, against also being madly in love with this strange new game. What also fascinated me was just...how mahjong was sold to the West. How it was marketed. The tales they had to spin, in order to get people interested in it. The brutal truth is that .... mahjong is NOT that old. Chess goes back to like, the 1200s or something, I think.  Mahjong goes back to about 1850-odd.

But to get people interested in the game - these people who had only the vaguest notions of anything to do with Asia or China or that kind of culture - people like J.P. Babcock, and his ilk - were spinning the most fantastical tales about mahjong.

I've read the old instruction books and stuff, from the 1910s, 1920s, 30s.

Even if all you do is look at the covers, it's a laugh-riot, to see the lengths these guys went to, in order to hype-up the game. Dragons and the great wall, and silk robes and coolie-hats. Calling it the "2,000 year old Chinese game that was invented by confucius”. The "Chinese Game of the Four Winds" - I still see that written on mahjong guides sold today. This goes back to what I was saying earlier - that people think that everything Chinse has ancient ancient ancient histories. Trying to flog a Chinese game that only goes back to 1850-odd...isn't very exciting. So they came up with all these ridiculous tales of the forbidden city and eunuchs and concubines and the emperor playing it with is courtiers, etc. Complete rubbish - but it got people excited about it.

And while this was going on - this - cultural appropriation, I guess you'd call it today - of mahjong and all things related to it - you also had enormous racism happening. Australia had the White Australia Policy, America had the Chinese Exclusion Act...

But somehow - with all kinds of clever marketing - mahjong got over all these racial hurdles - and became a hit. That was what fascinated me so much about its history.

Are there any specific variations or styles of Mahjong that you particularly enjoy playing? What sets them apart?

I was taught Richii mahjong by my friend in school, but my friends now, we play Chinese mahjong.

In your opinion, does Mahjong have a unifying power that brings people together regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds?

I think it does, simply because it's not like any other game in terms of how it's played.

A lot of cultures have card games.A lot of cultures have some version of chess. A lot of cultures have some kind of simplistic gambling game.

But only China has mahjong. So far as I know, you can't go to any other country and find another game that's played with tiles like that. And I think it's this uniqueness about mahjong that makes people want to play it. Want to KNOW how to play it - like some kind of brag - I know how to play this unique game, and can play it with others who also know it. Race or ethnicity doesn't really come into it. It's fascination that pulls people in. "Oh you're Italian? Do you know how to make pasta? "Oh you're from the UK? What's the best way to make a cup of tea?” "Oh you're Chinese? Do you play mahjong?” It's that sort of thing.

Are there any particular Mahjong etiquette or customs that you believe are important to uphold while playing the game?

Regardless of which version you play, there's certain things that are universal, I think.You have to be mindful of the rules of whatever version you're playing, you have to pay attention to what you're doing...and you have to keep your discard-pile neat, so that people can follow the trail of discarded tiles properly...this is why you have to pay attention in the game - blink and you'll miss the tile you need, either because you weren't paying attention, or because your discard-pile is a mess and you can't tell when or where a certain tile was thrown out. Which is saying a lot for me, because I'm legally blind.

Wow! I'm sure that is challenging for you! Do you have any advice for someone who is new to the game and wants to improve on their skill?

If you're new to the game, the most important thing is to find time to play with people who are genuinely interested in the game.

I would say, at least once a month. I started playing again, back around November 2022. It was purely by chance. My dad had been trying to get me involved in the local Peranakan-Chinese association that we have down here in Australia.

"Well, they were talking about wanting to learn mahjong, so I offered to teach them, but I haven't played in about 15 years".  "No problem! Bring the set to the next meeting" (which was in about 2-3 weeks). "I'll get my parents to teach you guys!"

After a game or two, the knack came back to me, and I started enjoying it again.

My friend's mother taught us how to play (and gave me a refresher course).

Since then, my friends and I have tried to meet up at least once a month, to play. It's not a big group - maybe half a dozen people. But we're very enthusiastic. We last met in early April, and we're hoping to meet again this week.

Thank you, Shahan, for opening the doors to the captivating world of Mahjong and sharing your personal experiences. Your story has left an indelible mark, reminding us of the power of games to transcend boundaries and create connections that span generations and cultures.