Project Mah Jongg

Women playing mah jongg in the Catskills, c. 1960. Collection of Harvey Abrams.
The familiar exclamations of “crak, bam, dot” accompanied by the shuffling of tiles conjure up memories of lively games played in the suburban living rooms of many Jewish homes from the 1920s through the 1960s—the heyday of the Chinese game mah jongg in the United States. For young Jewish Americans, mah jongg often brings up fond recollections of mothers and grandmothers engrossed in the riveting and social pastime. But mah jongg is not just a nostalgic hobby. The game has experienced a renaissance in the last two decades, fueled by a renewed interest in cultural activities of the pre-internet age like poker and bowling. Cross-generational and timeless, mah jongg has the ability to bring people together to relax and connect, and the game has a rich history in the Jewish American community.

This summer The CJM looks forward to presenting the exhibition Project Mah Jongg, which is organized by the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. The exhibition includes vintage photographs, artifacts, images, and items related to American mah jongg, with a particular focus on the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s. In addition to material culture, original works created for the exhibition by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, and renowned illustrators Maira Kalman, Christoph Niemann, and Bruce McCall offer personal interpretations of mah jongg in contemporary art and design. The CJM is also working with local artist Imin Yeh to present a Bay Area specific take on mah jongg from the artist’s own perspective, which includes both Chinese American and Jewish American influences. The exhibition itself is designed by Abbot Miller, a partner at Pentagram Design, and the sound designer Timothy Nohe has created an ambient soundscape that includes oral histories interspersed with the sounds of the game in action.

Vintage mah jongg tiles, n.d. Courtesy the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Mah jongg was imported to the US from China (most likely via San Francisco) around 1920 and became an instant hit among upper class women. Although its actual origins are murky, mah jongg was widely considered a game of Chinese royalty when it was introduced to an American audience, and a love of the game demonstrated worldliness, refinement, and sophistication. Foreign-inspired trends were ubiquitous in the 1920s, and the appeal of the exotic led to mah jongg themed items that ran the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, but generally demonstrated a respect for Chinese culture. Jewish Americans, in particular, seemed to relate to the situation of Chinese Americans through a shared experience of immigration and discrimination. While Jewish American women’s early adoption of mah jongg showed an admiration of Chinese culture, imitating the leisure class’ love of mah jongg was also a form of assimilation. As curator Melissa Martens explains, “A game of mah jongg was a reminder of American inclusion, carrying high-class connotations that put Jewish Americans—both wealthy and aspiring—at ease.”

Leisure-class ladies playing a floating game of mah jongg, 1924. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1937 twelve Jewish women founded the National Mah Jongg League, both cementing its place in American society and beginning its strong associations with philanthropy. The League sold score cards, donating the proceeds to worthy causes, and mah jongg tournaments often raised charitable funds. During the war years, the League held fundraisers for organizations such as the Jewish Refugees Fund and United China Relief, the latter perhaps acknowledging a kinship with the Chinese through the shared game of mah jongg.

The CJM will have a robust series of programs to complement the exhibition in San Francisco. Some of the programs will include mah jongg classes, open play game days, and a lighthearted event that incorporates Jewish and Chinese culinary traditions, presented by exhibiting artist Imin Yeh and artist and Blue Bottle pastry chef Leah Rosenberg. In the center of the exhibition, a mah jongg table and four chairs will allow visitors to engage in a rousing game anytime, and The CJM will have both American and Chinese sets on hand for visitors to play. Project Mah Jongg and its related programming will give visitors to The CJM the opportunity not only to learn about the history of mah jongg in Jewish American life, but also to actively engage with the game today.

About the Author
Jeanne Gerrity is an independent curator and writer, who has reviewed exhibitions for Frieze, Art Papers, Art Practical, and Rhizome, among others. She is also an Associate Editor at Art Practical.


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