Book Review | Building Community One Tile at a Time

By | Jun 09, 2021

Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture
By Annelise Heinz
Oxford; 360 pp.; $34.95

At the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas street festival—a celebration of Ashkenazi Jewish, Chinese and Puerto Rican communities held each summer (pre-pandemic) on New York’s Lower East Side—groups of Chinese Americans and American Jewish women play mahjong side by side, sometimes pausing to teach younger festivalgoers how to play. The players line up their “hands” of decorated tiles in front of them, then work together to build up a winning square from the tiles.

The distinctive clicks of their tiles are drowned out by the din of klezmer musicians, Chinese dragon dancers, Bomba drummers and exuberant children making crafts, but the parallel games stand out. The players intersperse their play with conversation, but they have an intensity of purpose different from the raucous street festival surrounding them. Annelise Heinz’s new book on the cultural history of mahjong explains how this game is representative of two of the cultures on display in this festival, why each group takes it seriously and why the two groups play separately rather than together.

Although the book is an academic history, Heinz’s writing is inviting and free of scholarly jargon. It is my favorite kind of historical writing, one that uses a single cultural artifact, the game of mahjong, as a prism to reveal larger social issues—among others, race, class, gender, consumer culture and respectability. For instance, Heinz deftly demonstrates that mahjong helps us interpret the concept of leisure in the 20th-century United States: Who was allowed to be at leisure? Who had to fight to attain leisure? And who had leisure forced upon them?

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Mahjong began as one of many gambling games played by Chinese men in the late 19th century. American promoters and travelers brought it to the United States in the 1920s, where it exploded in popularity amid the faddish Orientalism of the decade. While Heinz reminds us that all kinds of people have played mahjong, she focuses on several specific groups that used mahjong to construct their communities: fashionable white women in the 1920s, Chinese immigrants of the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese migrants detained at Angel Island between 1910–1940, Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, and mid-century and postwar American Jewish women.

When postwar Jewish housewives carved out time and space for themselves to play mahjong, they built, knowingly or unknowingly, on a long history of Americans using mahjong to forge group identities.

As Heinz explains, mahjong was particularly well-suited to community-building in part because of the rhythm of the game, which has built-in pauses that encourage conversation. After each round of play, every 15 to 20 minutes, tiles must be shuffled and stacked, providing a longer break than shuffling a deck of cards. Ruth Unger, the Jewish woman who for three decades served as president of the National Mah Jongg League, remarked, “It’s not that you’ve left [your] problems behind, it’s that everybody has time to think about them and come up with solutions!”

Those interested in American Jewish history will be drawn to the final chapters of the book, which focus on how Jewish women experienced and changed the game. But Heinz also suggests that we cannot fully understand Jewish women’s mid-century experience of mahjong without understanding its place in U.S. culture earlier in the century. When postwar Jewish housewives carved out time and space for themselves to play mahjong—turning kitchens and other family rooms that were their workplaces into temporary spaces of female leisure—they built, knowingly or unknowingly, on a long history of Americans using mahjong to forge group identities.

Perhaps most powerfully, this background shows how the Orientalist thinking and visual culture of the time—which imagined a generalized East as “feminine, luxurious and backward”—shaped those American Jewish women’s relation to the game. Heinz’s careful attention to the material aspects of mahjong—its production history and the beauty and feel of the tiles, with flowers, Chinese text and other Chinese imagery helps us understand how images of the exotic East functioned in Americans’ everyday lives. Although Heinz does not do so herself, we might compare Jewish women’s enthusiasm for mahjong to American Jews’ enthusiasm for Chinese food. In both cases, 20th-century American Jews took a Chinese-American product and claimed it as their own with a striking possessiveness. As Ashkenazi American Jews struggled with mixed feelings about coming to be seen as more “white,” Jewish women signified both their white Americanness and their distinctiveness by playing an Americanized Chinese game.

At a moment when mahjong, like nearly everything else in American life, has come under scrutiny for questions of authenticity and appropriation, Heinz’s careful cultural history is particularly welcome. As Heinz reminds us, searches for “authenticity” in the American imagination have often been tied to items associated with the exotic, the primitive and the past. Measuring the supposed authenticity of any iteration of mahjong—evaluating its origin and essence to determine which group of people “owns” it—is not the most useful way to understand the game. Rather, Heinz takes a step back, looking carefully at how Americans have seen mahjong as alternately American and foreign, ancient and modern, respectable and dissolute. These telling contradictions reveal lasting trends in how Americans have seen themselves and how they have defined themselves against others.

Heinz resists giving us a single origin story of mahjong. Instead, we see how the game and its cultural meanings changed as mahjong was continually invented and reinvented throughout the 20th century. The game’s association with one group, such as Chinese immigrants, affected its reception by other groups, such as fashionable young women of the 1920s or midcentury Jewish homemakers.

How we spend our time matters. What we do when we are at leisure shapes the kinds of people we are, the stories we tell about who we are and the communities we are a part of. Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture helps us take play seriously, without losing the fun of it.

Rachel B. Gross is assistant professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University. She is the author of  Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice.

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