The Fascination of Mah Jong
One of the more curious fads that took America and then Europe by storm in the 1920s was the Chinese game of Mah Jong the result of a long history of the West’s cultural assimilation of many aspects of Chinese culture.
The rise of Mah Jong must be seen in context of the 18th century obsession with Chinoiserie, a word derived from ‘chinois’ the French for Chinese which was a style inspired by the art and design from China, Japan and other Asian countries. The first three decades of the 20th century saw a renewed fashion for Chinoiserie that peaked just after the First World War. Art and interior design once again adapted Chinese decorative elements and fashion incorporated Chinese décor and styles such as the Kimono, which became a fashionable tea gown and fancy dress item. There was even a Chinese style hairdo that was introduced in the early 20s that featured a slick-back look – the hair was pulled straight from the face and fixed in a chignon, often using a decorative device like a comb combined with ornate earings.
Mah Jong (or Mah Jongg) is usually a game for four players that originated in China and meant ‘sparrows’ or ‘rice-birds’, although there is still some debate about who created the game and when. It involves skill, strategy, calculation and luck and its charm lies largely in the beauty of its implements and dignity of its etiquette.
A Mah Jong sets consists of 144 pieces called tiles, ingeniously made of bone and bamboo and shaped like dominoes. The faces of the tiles are engraved in colours, the pieces being of four different kinds – Suits (108), Winds (16), Dragons (12) and bonus tiles called Flowers (4) and Seasons (4).
To start the game a city wall is built, four square. Each player is named after a Wind, with ownership of one side of the wall. The wall is broken and the objective is collect (by a system of drawing and discarding) a hand in which fourteen tiles fall into four sets of three and a pair. When this happens the player says ‘Mah Jong’.
The migration of Mah Jong to the West started in 1895 when Stewart Culin, an American anthropologist mentioned Mah Jong in a paper and word spread. About the same time W. H. Wilkinson of H.B.M. Consular Service published a form of Mah Jong but called Khanhoo in London in card form but it made little impression.
There appears to have been several routes of introduction. Joseph Park Babock, the Soochow representative of the Standard Oil company, introduced the game to English speaking clubs in Shanghai and then imported it into America by a San Francisco lumber merchant named W.A. Hammond. In no time at all sets were selling for up to $500. Babock later wrote a book Rules of Mah-Jongg which was simplified in 1920 and simply known as the “red book”.
In 1920, Abercrombie and Fitch also introduced the game which became a success in New York, and the owner of the company, Ezra Fitch, sent emissaries to Chinese villages to buy every set of Mah Jong they could find and they sold a total of 12,000 sets.
The game became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic and took on a number of trademarked names, such as ‘Pung Chow’ and the ‘Game of Thousand Intelligences’ and soon there were Mah Jong parties that involved dressing and decorating rooms in a Chinese style. By 1924 the Mah Jong fad was at its height and Eddie Cantor made his song ‘Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong’ hugely popular in Florenz Ziegfeld’s show Kid Boots (1924) in New York. Equally, London had gone Mah Jong mad and it was featured in Noel Coward’s show The Vortex and Dolly Tree designed the costumes for a Mah Jong ballet in Tom Webster’s revue Cartoons.
In more recent years there has been a revival with associations and groups springing up all over the world and Alan D. Millington book The Complete Book of Mah-Jongg (1977) bringing the game back into popular usage.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
The Queen Magazine (The Fascination of Mah-Jongg)
The Twenties by Alan Jenkins