麻将 (ma jiang). Mahjong is more than a game in Hong Kong, it is an obsession. Most families have a set of tiles in the house, and I have never met a Hong Konger who does not admit to playing, if only on holidays. So, five weeks ago, when my friend Tracie suggested we enroll in an introductory class at the local YMCA, I jumped at the opportunity. My intention was to complete the five week course and learn the basics. My enrollment in the upcoming advanced course speaks to the game’s addictive nature as well as its complexity. The rules are so multifaceted that we were unable to learn ?let alone absorb ?them all in the beginning course.
So what is this crazy game? After five weeks, I am still trying to understand it. Some note a vague resemblance to gin rummy, although when a classmate tried to put together a run of 4, our teacher, Nancy Luey, immediately exclaimed, “You start confusing Mahjong with gin and we’ll have to throw some whiskey at it!” She was not referring to any association with drinking, but rather the game’s seamier side. After all, Mahjong is first and foremost a gambling game. As my friend Emily said, “No money! No fun! No game!” Another friend refuses to play - at all - as the result of a large gambling debt acquired while in university.
Mahjong has also been compared to dominoes. While I do not play dominoes, the tiles do have a similar look and feel, and the instruction book, included with my Mahjong set, is titled, “Instructions to play Mahjong, the Chinese domino game.” Still others claim some commonality with Bridge, but only because Chinese insist Mahjong keeps the mind sharp and alert. I read one article that even claimed it could stave off Alzheimer’s.
Since I began my course at the Y, the first question people ask is, “What version are you learning?” I am learning the Cantonese rules, reported to be the easiest, but there is also Shanghainese, Western, Taiwanese, and I am certain, still other versions I have yet to encounter. I have not gathered the courage to ask about the difference between Cantonese and say, Western Mahjong, but my sense is that it is significant.
The history is equally murky. We learned in class that the game started over 100 years ago among sailors. Created to pass long hours at sea, one suit, “bamboo,” was named in honor of a ship’s mast; another, the “circle” or “bull’s eye”, is so-called because it resembles the bottom of a bucket, and the “Chinese character” suit represents money. The red, green, and white dragon tiles are a reflection of the Chinese belief that these mythical creatures are lucky, and the emergence of “cardinal” tiles named for the four winds - North, South, West, East ?are logical for a game created at sea. This all made sense until I turned to the Internet to fill in some of the historic gaps. There I found that the game’s past is not settled with some claiming it spans up to one to 2,000 years and others that it started as a favorite pastime for those with royal associations.
And so, a few weeks ago, I embarked on this new challenge. Learning Mahjong over the Chinese New Year season is appropriate; after all, the most common answer - among Chinese - to questions about how they spent their holiday is, “Mahjong!” In fact, I have friends who tell me they only play during family gatherings. While the game has evolved into a Tai Tai activity among Westerners, in Hong Kong both men and women embrace it equally, although I understand that it is mostly men who frequent the numerous Mahjong parlors around town.
One friend, whose mother forbade her and her brother from learning the game, nevertheless picked it up as a teen. She said she played quite a bit with friends, never paying any mind to the fact that she was a frequent loser. However, after months of being referred to as, “yue lam,” or “fish stomach” in Cantonese, a name given to habitual losers, she quit. “After a while, it just didn’t feel good to be called a fish’s stomach.”
I will not attempt to review the game rules. I will only say that - so far ?despite rounds “with an east wind” and terminology including Sheung, Phoong, and Khoong, playing the game is fairly straightforward. It is the scoring and point system that add a level of complexity not found in other games I have encountered. But this is the least of my worries. Beginning Monday, Nancy will not longer allow us to use the simplified, English-friendly, tiles with Latin numbers to help those of us still not reading Chinese.
As I quizzed myself on the Chinese characters used in the game, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. On the other hand, nowadays when I am out walking on Sunday mornings and hear the familiar clicking sound of Mahjong tiles being shuffled on a table - or an occasional “PHOONG!” - I smile, somehow feeling more connected to this crazy place called Hong Kong.
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