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A ‘Ton’ Of Fun: How Mahjong Became A U.S. Phenomenon

Sixth graders in Virginia learned to play mahjong from their teacher, a Jewish-American whose grandmother and mother played the game.
Sixth graders in Virginia learned to play mahjong from their teacher, a Jewish-American whose grandmother and mother played the game.

Mahjong was first brought to the American public from China in the early 1920s. It was marketed as an ancient Chinese game, but it was actually created in the mid to late 1800s.

The game consists of players competing to form distinct sets or pairs of tiles, similar to gin rummy.

The game offered young Chinese Americans a way to connect with both cultures, according to historian Annelise Heinz.

After World War II, the game became popular among Jewish American women:

Young mothers, in particular, forged American mahjong culture during the 1950s and 1960s. At a time of suburbanization and newfound upward mobility for many Jewish families, regular weekly mahjong games helped women to build female-focused networks. Unusually, these groups weren’t focused on volunteerism or children’s education but offered a chance for women simply to have fun together. Mahjong became a cultural touchstone for many who grew up in postwar Jewish American homes, along with the tile racks, coin purses and plates of maraschino-studded pineapple slices that often accompanied the game.

Today, mahjong remains popular in Asian American and Jewish American communities. The game is also attracting new fans. In 2020, the growing popularity inspired three white women to launch a company, The Mahjong Line, that sells redesigned mahjong sets starting at $300 dollars.

Their stated goal of giving the game a “respectful refresh” (as the original website read) sparked backlash online.

— Alyse Whitney 수지 (@AlyseWhitney) January 5, 2021

We dive into the history and future of mahjong.

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