A new company has sprung up to “refresh” Mahjong tiles by modifying them to an Instagram-ready palette and illustrative style. The Mahjong Line, founded by Kate LaGere, Annie O’Grady, and Bianca Watson and designed by O&H Brand Design, has released five sets, some of which scrap classic imagery altogether—like bamboo being replaced with nonsensical patterns of the word “BAM,” as well as the inclusion of thunder clouds and bags of flour.
Its goal, according to the website’s original “About Us” page (which has since been updated) was to bring the game to the “stylish masses,” because the artwork of traditional tiles “was all the same.” A quiz on the site to determine “which gal are you?” features only white women as options for a dream dinner guest and asks users to choose between vacation destinations in Paris, France, Moab, Utah, or Austin, Texas. A set of these tiles would set you back either $325 or $425. Each set is a limited edition run, like a streetwear release.
It’s a familiar story—an Asian product being modified to appeal to white audiences and sold at a markup. Understandably, people were angry. Though the company was created in November 2020, backlash mostly emerged this week when Twitter users brought attention to the site. Some users drew comparisons to Lucky Lee’s, the white woman helmed “clean Chinese cuisine” restaurant that framed Chinese food as a “guilty” eat leaving people feeling “bloated and icky.”
In response to the backlash, The Mahjong Line turned off comments on their Instagram account, and deleted photos of founders on the account. As of January 5, Mahjong Line posted an apology on their Instagram, and made it their “About Us” page. (The “FAQ” page has also been updated—the original mostly focused on the story of Mahjong’s commercialization in America).
But the apology falls into much of the same trap as the original product. It draws a distinction between “American” versus “Chinese” Mahjong, and uses that delineation as a kind of carte blanche to continue selling their sets to the “American” audience in the way they’d like to define it. Specifying “American” rather than “Chinese” positions these groups as completely separate—rather than acknowledging Chinese Americans can and do play Mahjong in America. There are many variants in the way Mahjong is played—the “American” variant has a formalized set of rules—but they all fundamentally came from a game that originated in China. It continues a pattern of Asian culture and artwork being gentrified or used as window dressing to sell new products, while ignoring, insulting, and dismissing actual cultural origins.
Games evolve, and take on new meaning as they move through communities. It would be ridiculous to be angry that Mahjong is played outside of its culture of origin—one of the great joys of playing games is seeing them find popularity among various groups of people. Post World War II, the game became especially popular within Jewish communities, particularly with mothers—this is well-detailed in an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Maryland. Some of these variants even include different pieces. (“American Mahjong” is where those “joker” symbols on the blanks come from). That’s not the problem.
And the idea that others might be exposed to Mahjong is actually very exciting to me. Outside of a certain scene in Crazy Rich Asians, I had not seen gameplay since my childhood. I grew up around games of Mahjong at my grandparents’ home—their kitchen table was actually a game table, complete with four drawers, and a lid that lifted to reveal a hollowed felted interior. During mealtime I’d be chastised for fidgeting with the hefty pieces, their contrasting milky white fronts and vivid green backs appetizingly vibrant. The click of the pieces as they briefly strike one another is as familiar a sound to me as any.
It’s the framing of the product. The release of another design could have been an opportunity to engage with the game’s history. Instead it reified the idea that traditional artwork was not “stylish” and that the object could be sold at a higher value through appealing to white people—and then followed it by delineating between “American” and “Chinese” gameplay in a way that reinforced the idea that these categories were mutually exclusive, and that acknowledging the latter meant freedom to cater to a personal definition of the former.
Ironically, Mahjong Line’s redesign poses gameplay limitations. Some of the new designs are more difficult to discern, with irregular patterns and color palette decisions. Particularly on the neon purple “Minimal” set that does include Chinese characters, the choice of pink and red against a fuschia background makes certain character strokes hard to read, inadvertently altering their meaning when read at a quick glance.
Making the sets limited edition also also makes it harder to learn. It is, in fact, that “sameness” of Mahjong sets that allow a seasoned player to easily scan the tiles from touch alone, to become familiar with the architecture of play, and to quickly teach it to new players.
I understand how someone who wants to share their love of mahjong and expand its community of players might create their own designs. But Mahjong Line's initial pitch was doing something else. It was purporting to “refresh” mahjong, and its design, price point, and marketing language implied they were classing the game up. After all, these sets were for American mahjong.