Imin Yeh discusses her artwork, "Paper Mahjong"

To accompany the exhibition Project Mah Jongg, The Contemporary Jewish commissioned artist Imin Yeh to create the work Downloadable Paper Mahjong. The exhibition is on view through October 28, 2014. On September 18, Imin sat down with former Curatorial Associate Jeanne Gerrity to discuss her work.

Paper Mahjong by Imin Yeh
Hand crafted Paper Mahjong set created by Imin Yeh

Can you tell me a little bit about how you came up with the idea for Paper Mahjong?

Growing up, my grandmother had a mah jongg set that I was obsessed with because it was really simple and well-crafted. When I was older and living in China, I was constantly searching for a set as beautiful as this one, but all I could find existed somewhere between fake “antique” sets or commercial glossy new ones. I realized my grandmother’s set was so beautiful because it was so loved and worn, having been touched by hundreds of hands. Underlying many of my more recent projects is this idea of making paper facsimiles of the things you want. That’s the original impetus of this project: instead of being a granddaughter who designed her grandma’s set, being a person whose grandchildren would say, “my crazy grandmother built her own set of paper mah jongg tiles.” When I was working at the Asian Art Museum in their store, many customers had similar goals of really wanting to get this authentic and well-made set. You hear the phrase so often now, “It’s crappy because it was made in China.”  Their design for an exotic and authentic cultural artifact exists in contrast with their contemporary conception of how things are mass produced in countries such as China.   So the idea with Paper Mahjong is that it’s one hundred percent free, but you have to make it yourself, putting the labor back onto the consumer. It’s about the transformation of a free cheap worthless material into something extremely precious because of the investment of hours.

How did you adapt the project for The CJM?

I’ve always known that Chinese people and Jewish people were the best of friends. I think that’s because I grew up in a place where I only had Jewish friends, and it was really clear to me that there were a lot of commonalities, and one of the things that both cultures shared was mah jongg. Both mah jongg and crafting have an incredibly social aspect; they bring people together. To play Paper Mahjong you build the set with friends. It seemed like the perfect way to celebrate the friendship between the two different cultures through crafting together. For the exhibition I redesigned the original Paper Mahjong set with little elements. For example, the background pattern is the Star of David and the Chinese character for friendship, which is actually a pattern I developed for an art collaboration with Leah Rosenberg called Jews for Dim Sum—it’s an older pattern that we’ve been using for awhile. Then there are different elements in the suits. For instance, the number suit has both Chinese characters and Hebrew characters, but what’s omitted is the Roman numerals, which I really like because you have to learn at least one set of those numbers to play. Also, instead of the zero dot suit there’s a pomegranate, which is an auspicious fruit in both cultures. 
Featured exhibition artist Imin Yeh 
Your work often challenges cultural stereotypes. In that context, how did you feel about the Jewish-American appropriation of the Chinese game of mah jongg?

That’s a good question! My challenging cultural stereotypes is more a reaction to the way people want to keep cultures stoic or dead or unmoving, and not a reaction against new appropriations and genuine, living ways the culture changes. I’m more critical of the false idea that mahjong is this ancient Chinese game that can’t be adapted or played outside of that country. I think it’s funny that a lot of people are shocked that a huge percentage of the Jewish population plays the game, as if it’s not possible for non- Chinese to play. I’m definitely more critical of that attitude than I am of new audiences—this game does not belong to one group or another. For me, the social history of mah jongg is really about American culture and history. A story of the people who have emigrated to this country, how culture is passed down generations and across different communities, and how a game can find new life and bring seemingly disparate people together. 

Can you explain the actual process of making the screen prints?

The installation in the show comprises forty-four individually hand-screened prints showing all of the unique tiles in a mahjong set. That whole process was the most laborious aspect: redesigning all the tiles, redrawing everything, and screenprinting them. Constructing the individual paper tiles is a challenge in and of itself, though I have always constructed things out of paper. The new design for the tiles is applied to the finished paper template. Then comes the hard part. All of the tiles need to be individually cut out by hand and folded and rolled and glued to construct the full set.  This entire process takes around 13 hours if you are a fast and focused worker. I think Netflix binges exist to facilitate high endurance crafting.  

As part of an ongoing collaboration called Jews for Dim Sum, Imin and artist Leah Rosenberg will be debuting the last of four limited edition screenprinted snack boxes made specifically to accompany the exhibition Project Mah Jongg on Thursday, October 16, from 6 to 7 pm. Visitors can also join Imin in crafting paper mahjong tiles. Past editions of the snack boxes are available for purchase at Wise Sons at The CJM.  

About Imin Yeh

Imin Yeh received a BA in Art History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005 and an MFA from California College of the Arts in 2009. She creates sculptures, installations, downloadable crafts, and participatory projects. Recent projects include a commission from the San Jose Museum of Art and a yearlong parasitic contemporary art space called SpaceBi that took place in the Asian Art Museum. She has exhibited at the Asian Art Museum, Zero1 Biennial, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Intersection for the Arts, among many other venues. She was recently awarded a Eureka Fellowship through the Fleishhacker Foundation, and is a lecturer at San Jose State University. For more information, visit her website at

About the Author
Jeanne Gerrity is Associate Editor at Art Practical  Jeanne is also a writer, who has reviewed exhibitions for FriezeArt PapersArt Practical, and Rhizome, among others. She was a Curatorial Associate at The CJM for two years, and most recently curated Project Mah Jongg


Popular posts from this blog

Jews on Vinyl Revue, Review

We All Need the Human Touch: Ray Harryhausen's The 3 Worlds of Gulliver

“A Gentile’s House”: Lolita and the Holocaust