The Mahjong Mistresses chose their name for good reasons: They love alliterations and salutes to hot women. “I love it when we’re teaching people and they’re like ‘Yes, mistress. Excuse me, mistress,’” Lin said. “It’s like, yes, you’re my little bitch! It’s just a fun, sexy name.” But they also have a real desire to teach new people about the intimacy and feminine power tied to the game. Wu said she channels the energy of Lust, Caution, a film by Ang Lee loosely based on events that took place during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1942. One particular scene shows the wives and mistresses of the film’s male characters gathering around a table to play—but also to exchange information, provide protection, and make decisions on behalf of their male counterparts.
“I love it when we’re teaching people and they’re like ‘Yes, mistress. Excuse me, mistress.’” —Angie Lin
Feeling far more optimistic about my Lunar New Year plans than the ones I’d had for December 31, last week I put on my dazzling sequined dress that I keep in the back of my closet for any parties that encourage ‘Festive Attire.’ I called an Uber and texted Angie Lin that I would be there at 7:43 PM, before doors open. But by the time I arrived at The Aster social club in Hollywood, at least 20 other people were in line before me in the lobby, waiting to be checked in.
The Mistresses warned me of this: If I want a seat at a mahjong table, I better show up early. This was just the second event from Mahjong Mistress, a group of four friends who are turning their love of the centuries-old tile-based game into one of L.A.’s can’t-miss parties. Lin, Susan Kounlavongsa, Zoé Blue M., and Abby Wu officially banded last fall after separately teaching mahjong to their respective group of friends, hauling their sets to people’s houses and dinner parties. “I feel like a traveling mahjong set,” Lin said. “At all times I have a table, four stools, and three sets in the back of my car.” Now, they had a guestlist of 500 eager mahjong players and Lunar New Year revelers (and another 300 on the waitlist).
The murmurs and whispers of excitement began in the lobby, where The Aster’s concierge arranged us in an orderly fashion in front of the busy elevators. We were spit out into a hallway on the fifth floor that led into a low-lit cabaret. The Mistresses set up 10 tables, ranging from beginner to advanced levels, with beautiful mahjong sets—tiles of lavish detail, such as black lacquer, translucent pearl, and intricate floral patterns. By 8 PM, drink menu flyers were scattered throughout the room, damp from early birds setting their fruity baijiu cocktails on them. Soon, I had a running list of my favorite third culture-inspired clothing items of the evening: a black tote that read “99 Problems” in the iconic 99 Ranch Market insignia; a deconstructed qipao detailed with mesh and velvet; a bootleg Rush Hour 2 hat.
When I asked M. if they had known they would be filling a niche lacuna in L.A. nightlife, she humbly cited their supportive friends “who really love to spread the word and help each other out in a beautiful way.” Indeed, I was hard-pressed to find anyone in the room who didn’t know one of the Mistresses or one of their friends. All four women work in network-happy creative industries: Lin manages vinyl distribution and reissues for Light in the Attic Records while also releasing Taiwanese music under her own label; Kounlavongsa, deemed by the others as the “Mayor of LA,” is a studio manager for the hip global radio platform NTS; Wu produces videos for 88Rising; and M. is a fine artist whose brother started a ping pong community called Little Tokyo Table Tennis with a cult following of its own.
Regardless of all the massive creative talent under one room, everyone seemed to really be here for mahjong, the game that the Mistresses adore for keeping their work lives at bay. “I feel like the crux of the equation that makes everything so successful is everybody’s desire for cultural exchange, making communities, and learning new things,” M. said.They explained the rules over the mic to ensure everyone got to play: one game per person at a table. After hovering and cheering on two rounds of winners, I sat down with three other newbies. One of the Mistresses glided over to explain that we would be playing Taiwanese American mahjong, an abridged, “simplified” version to flatten the learning curve. (There are plenty of other styles to learn as you advance, from Chinese to Filipino to Japanese.) With grace, our Mistress allocated our tiles, stood behind us to identify pairs and sets in our hands that we didn’t immediately see, and reminded us to call out “pung” when we wanted to take from the discard pile. As I became more familiar with the tiles, hallowed patterns across characters began to appear. Soon, I hadn’t even noticed the boozy din enveloping me; I just wanted to win.
While playing what I worried was the longest, clumsiest game of mahjong in Taiwanese American history, I missed the free baijiu tasting in the adjacent room, only catching glimpses of the range of complex reactions from people’s first-ever sips of the plummy yet umami-rich Chinese liquor. But I experienced a different first: a performance on the guzheng by artist and musician Jett Kwong, who brought a sweet calm over the expanding entropy in the cabaret.Mingling with people who got off the tables for the live music, I met Jennet Liaw, a former New Yorker who has been getting to know L.A. better by saying “yes” to interesting parties. With Kwong’s strings as the soundtrack, she told me she was happy to see new and old players sitting together at tables. Then she said something unusually affecting to hear at a rambunctious party: She was thinking about her grandfather.
“I realize now, looking at everyone playing, he let me win,” Liaw said. “He’d let me win 20, 30 times before I found the missing part, and it made me feel really confident and gave me a positive relationship with mahjong. We would also gossip about little family things, and I miss that a lot.”
As the lion dance began to close out the evening, I waited in line for drinks with an attendee named Chris Chan, channeling his inner David Byrne with a supersized structured emerald green blazer and matching loose slacks. Through his tiny black sunglasses, he told me the party was wonderful because he felt very at home. “I texted my mom saying I’m playing mahjong with people who never played before and that it felt unfair,” Chan said, subtly flexing his lifelong experience with the game. “She said they’re just paying their dues by learning to play mahjong and getting into the culture. I was unsure of this, but everyone’s been open to learning, and that’s really refreshing.”Hearing this, I was assuaged after aching over how awkward I felt at the table. I opened a tab in Chrome on my phone to start looking for a mahjong set when I got home. Just before the New Year countdown, I ran into a few friends who I should have known would be here. We marveled at our not-so-tiny L.A. Asian circle and laughed irreverently at jokes that would be uttered more discreetly on any other evening at The Aster: “This is the white man’s dream party!”
Since the Mistresses’ first event—last September, for 100 people at NTS’s studio in Pico-Union, featuring DJs, Taiwanese family-style cooking, and a projector that rifled through iconic mahjong scenes from an array of films—they’ve been courted by brands and TV producers who want to provide capital for future events or profile them on MTV documentary-style productions. I wondered whether they worry about the commercialization of their success, or more so, the eventual loss of their homegrown spirit. But the Mistresses are in the industry; they can discern which are blatant paychecks to sell authenticity. Mahjong Mistress is manifesting more good things in their Rabbit Year. Lin, Kounlavongsa, M., and Wu hinted at wanting to create educational programs with museums about the history of mahjong, and taking their parties to New York. These are goals for now, but it feels like the natural progression for Mahjong Mistress. There isn’t a cooler group of women to teach people a livelier way to sit down and gossip with three new friends.