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February 21, 2010 / Katie

Get Your Mahjong On

A few months ago I developed a passing obsession with the game of mahjong. Mahjong is to Chinese culture as bridge used to be to American culture (think back to episodes of I Love Lucy where Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred would sit around and play bridge). Chinese people are no strangers to the vice of gambling, which is why mahjong is often played for money. It’s especially popular among the elderly and retired and is the kind of game that can last long into the night, where players rarely leave their seats except for a quick bathroom break.

There is a scene in Wong Kar Wai’s lyrical masterpiece In the Mood for Love that illustrates the never ending mahjong game perfectly. The two would-be lovers, played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, are pent up in his bedroom for twenty-four hours while they wait for the neighbors to finish playing mahjong–she cannot sneak back into her room, unnoticed, until they leave, lest the neighbors suspect an illicit affair.

The goal of my obsession was to learn how to play the game (I’d actually played a few times years ago at band camp but had forgotten the rules. Yes, band camp, where a Chinese parent was kind enough to bring several sets to teach kids during our afternoon breaks) and then to have a mahjong party since it’s a game that requires four players. I suppose I wanted to give the two mahjong gambling rings in my building a run for their money, or at the very least, a taste of their own medicine. Besides, when in Rome…

Step 1: Get a Mahjong Set

Procuring a decent and affordable set was surprisingly difficult. I stopped into a few trinket shops around Chinatown but found most mahjong sets priced out around $90 and were small, quaint, and antiquey-looking. I even scoured the internet and Amazon.com, but only found slightly reduced prices. Traditionally, mahjong tiles are made from bone and bamboo, or even rarer ivory, which helps to explain why sets are so pricey; yet most tiles today are made from plastic or synthetic materials. I had almost given up when I remembered to check my local grocery store, Hong Kong Supermarket, on the corner of Elizabeth and Hester. If they sell live toads in their wet section, it wasn’t unreasonable to think they might also stock mahjong sets. Lo and behold, I set my eyes on a green-backed mahjong set in the miscellaneous housewares section. I brought that baby home for the bargain bin price of $35 and only had to suffer the guffaws of the Chinese checkout ladies as I walked away carrying a heavy briefcase full of mahjong tiles (sets usually come in a suspicious looking briefcase).

Step 2: Learn How to Play

The idea was to learn how to play the game, it really was. But I wanted someone to teach me in the flesh instead of having to learn from the lifeless game instructions I found online. There’s always a gap between knowing the rules and actually playing the game. My inquiries to friends turned up no one who knew exactly how to play; the mahjong briefcase began to catch dust sitting idle in my apartment.

Step 3: Host a Mahjong Party

Fast forward to my 25th birthday. As luck would have it, one of my guests knew the rules of the game and actually spied out my mahjong set. No sooner had he suggested it than we hit the tiles and began listening studiously to his explanation of the rules. Of course, I had partaken quite liberally in the merrymaking of the night, as any good birthday girl should, so the rules flew right over my head. I still don’t know how to play mahjong, but I had my mahjong party and fixed my temporary obsession. I can say with confidence that a good time was had by all.

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