From Ningbo to Hoboken: How a Chinese Parlor Game Became a Favorite Pastime For Jewish Women

by Celeste Heiter, Feb 17, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Rose of the Winds...Four Great Siamese Sisters...Three Adopted Sons of the Red Dragon...The Fourfold Homely Happiness...Thirteen Wonderful Lanterns...

Are they fantastic fables? Quaint folk songs? Great works of literature?

Nope. These evocative titles are none other than the names of but a few of the dozens of "special hands" that may be played in the game of mah-jongg. The Chinese people have always had a particular flair for endowing commonplace things with fanciful names and the game of mah-jongg is no exception. Mah-jongg, which means "clattering sparrow," got its name from the sound the tiles make, because when shuffled they sound like a flock of sparrows scrabbling for food.

This lively parlor game, played with a set of 144 tiles, colorfully decorated with images of birds, bamboo, flowers, four winds and seasons, dragons, lucky circles and Chinese characters, is somewhat like an elegant and elaborate game of rummy. Four hands of thirteen tiles are drawn, which are then swapped and collected in pairs, runs, and sets of three or four, with "special hands" to make the game more challenging. Now popular all over the world, Mah-jongg has as many rules, styles, and variations as there are circles of friends who play the game.

I don't recall exactly when I first became aware of mah-jongg. Perhaps it was in Japan, where the game is wildly popular, especially among Japanese businessmen who spend hours on end wagering high stakes at mechanically automated tables in back-alley and basement-level Mah-jongg parlors in cities all over the country. But because I'd always been intimidated by its convoluted rules, I'd never played mah-jongg until my son Will, at the tender age of eight, got a good grasp of the game and taught me how. Since then, it has become our favorite way to while away a Sunday afternoon.

However, not long ago, while watching a scene from the ever-delightful movie Driving Miss Daisy, in which the very Jewish Miss Daisy Werthen is playing her weekly game of mah-jongg with three of her very Jewish lady friends, a question leapt to mind: How on earth did a nineteenth-century Chinese parlor game come to be a favorite pastime for middle-aged Jewish women?

I began my research on the Internet, which yielded a bounty of historical information, not all of which concurs. Depending upon which source you consult, the game of mah-jongg may or may not have has its origins during, or even before the time of the great philosopher Confucius, who some mah-jongg scholars believe developed the game around 500 B.C. Others even maintain that mah-jongg was played aboard Noah's Ark, around 2350 B.C., during the 40 days and nights of rain, when east had been the prevailing wind during the storm, leading to the east position in the game of mah-jongg being the dominant seat. Of course, when tracing the history of mah-jongg it is also important to consider its precursors, such as card, dice, and tile games which may have led to the creation of the game of mah-jongg as we know it today.

During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD) a game called "Ya Pei," was played with 32 tiles of wood or ivory, similar in shape to modern mah-jongg tiles. Another popular game called "Ma Tiae" (Hanging Horse), played with 40 paper cards, was invented during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The markings on "Ma Tiae" cards are remarkably similar to the tiles of modern mah-jongg sets, and it is believed that two brothers named Chen Yumen and Yanglou created the game of mah-jongg from this early predecessor in the Chinese city of Ningbo during the latter half of the nineteenth century around the time of the Tai Ping Rebellion (1851-1864).

Most convincing of all however, is the fact that the earliest written record of mah-jongg and the earliest known mah-jongg sets date only as far back as the 1880's, when an American anthropologist and ethnic game researcher named Stewart Culin published papers on mah-jongg and other Chinese games in the English-speaking world. In 1909, Japanese author Natsume Soseki mentioned mah-jongg in a work entitled "Some Places in Manchuria and Korea," and the earliest known Chinese book on mah-jongg is "Keys to Winning at Mah-Jongg and Poker," written in 1920 by Haishang Laoyouke. British Sinologist Sir William Henry Wilkinson, consul to China and Korea in the mid 1890's, wrote articles and books on Chinese games, and a mah-jongg set he brought back from China is one of the world's earliest-documented mah-jongg sets.

Although there is much controversy over the Chinese origins of Mah-jongg, everyone seems to agree that the game was first introduced to the U.S. by Joseph P. Babcock, a representative of the Standard Oil Company in the Chinese city of Soochow. From his travels, he brought the first mah-jongg sets into the U.S., and in September, 1920, he published his own simplified set of rules and scoring methods for the game of mah-jongg. Two years later, W. A. Hammond, a lumber merchant from San Francisco, formed the Mah-jongg Sales Company of San Francisco, and began the commercial importation of Mah-jongg sets from China.

The following year, mah-jongg mania reached a pinnacle of popularity in the United States, with mah-jongg sets ranking sixth in exports from Shanghai, and revenues totaling more than $1.5 million. The shinbones of cattle were even shipped from the U.S. to Shanghai to meet the demand for production of mah-jongg sets. Soon, several U.S. companies, including Parker Brothers, United States Playing Card, and Milton Bradley, began producing domestic mah-jongg sets. Interestingly enough, the mah-jongg craze is attributed the rescue of the Milton Bradley Company from the throes of bankruptcy when its factories began working 'round the clock to produce mah-jongg sets.

Soon, mah-jongg merchants were offering demonstrations and lessons to attract new players, and many unrelated businesses used mah-jongg as a marketing tool by giving away complimentary mah-jongg score cards and rulebooks with company logos printed on them. At the height of its heyday, mah-jongg was by far the most popular game in America. People everywehere were playing it, in their homes, at social gatherings, on city sidewalks, and in hundreds of mah-jongg parlors which had sprung up across the country.

Due to its wildfire popularity however, the rules changed with every new merchant and every new player. Each circle of players had its own set of rules and methods of keeping score. As a result, in 1924 a Standardization Committee of the American Official Laws of Mah-Jongg, consisting of M.C. Work, Robert Foster, Joseph Babcock, Lee Hartman, and J.H. Smith, all of whom had published their own book of rules, collaborated to write The American Official Laws of Mah-Jongg, published in 1924.

Official rulebooks notwithstanding, players still continued to make up their own rules, and naturally, a game of such immense popularity would result in the formation of leagues and organizations. The National Mah-jongg League was formed in New York City in 1937, when a group of mah-jongg enthusiasts met, agreed upon standardized rules, and began playing regularly. Still thriving today, the National Mah-jongg League now has more than 250,000 members, publishes instruction books, newsletters and standard hand cards, and organizes tournaments, and other mah-jongg-related events.

Interesting though it may be, all this historical information still didn't answer my question: How did mah-jongg become a popular pastime among middle-aged Jewish women? So...I aimed my query at the original source of my curiosity: the movies. There I discovered that, in addition to Driving Miss Daisy, lots of other movies feature scenes depicting the game of mah-jongg, including The Joy Luck Club, Rising Sun, The Sting, Dim Sum, Cocoon, Raise the Red Lantern, and Dragon:The Bruce Lee Story.

All very fascinating indeed, but still not the answer I was looking for. At long last however, yielded Mah-Jongg: The Tiles That Bind, a 32-minute documentary by Phyllis Heller and Bari Pearlman.

Eureka! My relentless research had paid off. This obscure little jewel shed a welcome ray of light on the mystery of the middle-aged Jewish ladies and the game of mah-jongg. Through a series of interviews with a tightly-knit community of Jewish women, several grown children of Jewish mah-jongg players, and a group of Chinese immigrants, Heller and Pearlman reveal that the Chinese-Jewish connection through the game of mah-jongg follows quite logically from the mah-jongg craze of the 1920's.

Imagine if you will, a time in U.S. history when the game of mah-jongg was sweeping the country. The first world war had just ended, another loomed on the horizon, with a devastating economic depression in between.

"I started when I was a kid," says one sixty-something Jewish woman. "I lived in an apartment house...what you would call a tenement house, you know, years ago, and we had nothing to do. Everybody was so poor. We just got together and we played mah-jongg."

Another woman remembers, "You had the telephone, and you had mah-jongg. You didn't have television, the movies, the tennis club and the mall."

Still another recalls, "During the war, all the men were away. Social life was very nil. And we friends and I decided, that it was time we learned to do something together...and not have to go to the city, and not have to go to bars. So we learned to play mah-jongg. We were at my parents' house in Huntington. We stayed up all night learning how to play."

The proximity of tenement life provided the perfect environment for the cultivation of the mah-jongg tradition. A Jewish dentist, the son of an avid mah-jongg player reminisces, "Mah-jongg was more than a game. Mah-jongg was like life itself. 7:30 Friday could set your clock by that. The bell would ring and the girls would arrive. People with names like Minnie, Faye, Bertha, Ethel and Selma...It's interesting that here you had people from Eastern European backgrounds all getting so close together over a game from China. Go figure."

The traditional matriarchal element of the Jewish culture facilitated the passage of mah-jongg down through the generations from mother to daughter. "In the Jewish culture, it's almost like a rite of passage when you learn mah-jongg and get welcomed into The Game," remembers one such daughter.

And the fact that women of the day did not traditionally work outside the home served to further propagate the game of mah-jongg among the female gender. A young Jewish man recalls, "I can conjure up my grandmother's apartment, and the three things I see are her silver tea service, her crystal chandelier and her mah-jongg set."

One young woman, in reference to her deceased mother's mah-jongg set, says, "We have absolutely no use for this in my family, but we can't bear to give it away because my memories of my mother and my father's memories of his wife are so closely associated with this game that I think we hang onto it as a longstanding transitional object, and giving away the set would be, in a sense, giving away the mother we remember. I don't think of her as someone who had very many intellectual challenges on a daily basis. She was very much involved in her children's lives and in being a wife and in running the home. So I think that it became for her perhaps a substitute for more intellectual or academic pursuits. Because it did require a certain element of strategy that I don't remember her having in other areas of her life."

Over time, the weekly mah-jongg game became a ritual of near sacramental significance among Jewish women. The game was held each week on a rotating basis at the homes of each of the ladies in the mah-jongg circle. One Jewish mother recalls, "The kids knew when they went to the refrigerator, if there were fancy cakes and fruit in a fancy bowl, they couldn't touch it because it was for the mah-jongg ladies." Another says, "My daughter knew that if the pineapple was cut in quarters, with a cherry on each slice, mother was having mah-jongg."

And a young man remembers, "It was my mother's night. You knew once the friends started coming, you scattered. You didn't bother her. The house could fall down, there could be a fire, but you didn't bother my mother when she was playing mah-jongg."

But beyond the fascination for the game, lifelong mah-jongg players believe that the game has a therapeutic effect as well. "It's definitely the greatest therapy," says one Jewish woman. "It's cheaper than going to a therapist every week for 30 years. And it works just as well."

Another avid player says, "Mah-jongg helped us get through bad times, through depression, through times without jobs, through illness, through loss of a loved one, and that was very important."

Something about the game brings people together in a unique way. Perhaps it's the click of the tiles and the lively pace of the game. Or maybe it's the mutual participation and its repetitive, flowing nature that fosters chit-chat, gossip, and even intimate conversation. "Mah-jongg is a game that bonds people," says one young Chinese woman. "If you sit down with them for a few hours, you instantly become friends."

Mah-jongg is a game and a tradition that transcends time. "There are some women that have played mah-jongg with the same girlfriends for 40 years. Their children have gotten married, they may have gotten divorced. They're on their second or third husband. There have been more inconsistencies in those four women's lives than you can think of, but the one stable force is that mah-jongg game."

"And traditionally there's a saying that when they leave this world, the last one to go brings the mah-jongg set."

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