Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mahjong Mates

Four women sitting around a square table, squinting their eyes in concentration, busily strategizing, occasionally chiding one another, often breaking up in laughter. An important brainstorming session? A business meeting? Hardly, as we’re all in casual clothes. It’s just another mahjong session with my mates, one that we’ve been having for many years.

When I heard about how the Chinese game of mahjong was ever so popular among women members of Jewish social clubs in the United States, it really cracked me up. How did this game, similar to gin rummy but played with tiny tiles instead of cards and utilizing Chinese characters on some of the tiles, end up being a favourite among Jewish society ladies? What on earth did they call the Chinese characters? And how did they tally up the scores and winnings?

I was delighted to learn that they actually call out “Pung” and “Kong” just like my friends and I do. When my mahjong mates and I play the game, we automatically switch to Cantonese, and loudly make such exclamations for these three-of-a-kind and four-of-a-kind matches. These Jewish ladies even say “wash the tiles” which comes from the Chinese phrase describing the swishing around of the plastic tiles on the table to properly mix them up.

As I read more about how the game made its way to the United States and has been kept popular through the years, I realized that these ladies have so much in common with my mates and me. We all grew up watching our parents play the game. With me, it was more of a family affair. On special occasions like Chinese New Year, a table would be set up and the game could be played all night. My parents would rope in sons- and daughters-in-law to make up the numbers and take over when someone needed a break.

As a child watching the grown-ups play, I was thrilled when allowed to sit in to “wash the tiles” and arrange a stack of them. I know some of my friends’ mothers had their friends over to play every weekend and the stakes and bets would be higher, making everyone take the game very seriously, but for my family, the stakes were kept small and it was a great form of entertainment in the days before cable TV and social media.

I suppose, like many of the Jewish women I read about, I grew up thinking I would never be like my mother. I disdained the game as a waste of time, and thought that I would have better things to do. But gradually, as I got older and friends suggested a game or two, I found that it was really a great way to touch base with these friends and spend half a day or so together catching up.

Mahjong sessions for my group of friends revolve around someone’s birthday, and we usually end our time together with a great meal. Our bets are a pittance compared to others, and winnings just go into a pool which is spent on food. Recently when we were feeling flush with cash when we counted the amount in the pool (it wasn’t a lot, it only felt that way!), we decided to treat ourselves to a weekend getaway, where we played to our hearts’ content.

I had forgotten that I had played mahjong before with friends I grew up and went to school with. When we recently got together for a mini break at a beach resort after not having seen each other for literally decades, it was just like old times. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that we could play mahjong in the recreation room. Returning from dinner at about 11 pm, we actually sat down and played till 3am! We didn’t have chips and so had to tally up on a piece of paper. When I looked at it the next morning, it didn’t make sense at all. But it didn’t matter, because we had a ball, regressing to teenaged banter and insults. I can’t remember when I last stayed up till three in the morning, but the mahjong session with old friends was worth every bit of the exhaustion I felt the next day.

I guess every mahjong group has its own set of rules, system of tallying up and stakes. I recently was invited to join a game in Singapore and met a couple of women there who were really nice and but ever so serious at the mahjong table. Sharp as a whistle, they were eagle-eyed and exceedingly focused despite being much older than I.

Compared to this group of Singaporean women, my usual group of mahjong mates and I are hopelessly inept and forgetfulful. We are constantly assembling the wrong number of tiles, forgetting who hit what tile and making a mess of tallying up. We can see our mental faculties deteriorating year by year but thankfully, we only play with one another and are used to each other’s foibles.

I suppose some women have their beading workshops, gardening clubs and exercise classes, where oftentimes the organized activity is just an excuse to get together, have a meal and a good yarn. For me and my mahjong “kakis”*, our common fix is those plastic tiles that we can boisterously “pung” and kong”!

* Kaki is a term meaning “leg”, used in these parts to describe a pal or mate that you enjoy a common pursuit with.

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