An Open Letter to the Mahjong Line
an article by Kerry Yang
Dear [Asian Youth and] The Mahjong Line,
As a Chinese-Canadian who has faced lifelong racial struggles that delayed my appreciation for my culture, I stood in shock and frustration when I came across the Mahjong Line in January. I shared my honest viewpoint along with many members of the Chinese community and Asian allies under your posts. The Mahjong Line is a business that may have started off with good intentions which I recognized, but that did not change the detrimental impact it had on my community as we felt our culture and tradition were exploited for profits without recognition. There was a complete lack of respect and acknowledgement for the Chinese history and culture linked to Mahjong, no matter what subsequent versions were adapted when it left the country.
I was very disappointed with Mahjong Line’s reaction to the hurt and frustration from my community as well as the ensuing apology and history posts. Your business has continuously shared the message that you are open to constructive criticism, honest opinions, sincere outreach to express viewpoints. Ironically, comments were shut off as soon as backlash emerged, which can be understandable if any comments extended beyond frustration and justified anger to threats or direct attacks. However, a story posted this past week criticizing the Mahjong Line for its cultural appropriation and gaslighting apology led to my account being immediately blocked and my post was taken down before anyone had seen it. When I kindly messaged on another account asking to discuss the post instead, I was blocked again. I was confused and disappointed that not only the business was harming my community, but it was silencing me from voicing my opinion when you claim to welcome my honest viewpoint.
I was not the only one to go through this experience. Many others had reported that they were completely ignored when they sent DMs and weren’t able to share their opinions, especially after the accusatory post to the “social media mob”. Let me ask the Mahjong Line this: If one Chinese person had messaged you guys back in November, would you have restructured your business to credit and acknowledge the Chinese creation of the game and centuries-old history? Historically, as a racialized minority, this never happens– because one voice is never enough. Why would we have expected any different for a business that consistently ignored or blocked our criticism and even shut us out from sharing our opinions?
The Mahjong Line also mentioned social media users adopted a mob mentality. Our collective criticism was not because we saw other people do the same and wanted to “join in”. I can assure you showing the November 2019 Mahjong Line to a Chinese individual would warrant the same reaction received on social media. It was extremely insensitive to suggest our frustration was not genuinely our own and rather the influence of others, as if our viewpoints were not authentic or real. Not to mention the social media mob was justifiably frustrated people that have lived their lives being oppressed by the same people who profit off of us as has happened too many times before. The fox-eye trend? White people using our eye shape as an aesthetic while we were bullied and discriminated against for naturally having the same eye shape growing up. The Mahjong line? White people using our culture to profit off a traditional game without any recognition while we suffered discrimination and oppression for simply being born into the same culture.
The same post says there is an accusation towards the rhetoric in national news outlets. The headlines from a Google search show “cultural appropriation” “xenophobia” “racism” “culturally insensitive” “white-washing”, none of which are false. The line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation is the recognition of the origin and history, unlike how the Mahjong Line conveniently left out the roots of the original Chinese game, saying the American game was completely different and had a separate history. Whitewashing explores the concept of draining a culture of its culturally significant aspects and making it “white”. Without recognizing the game is Chinese and instead claiming it to be American with rich American roots, the Mahjong Line perfectly embodied an example of “white-washing”. These accusations were justified (although you seem to disagree in your recent post). Articles from CNN, Buzzfeed, Inside Edition, Jing Daily, Complex, and any other article I read expressed the reality of events. The writers explained the social media backlash and why the Mahjong Line was being accused of cultural appropriation while including the voices of Chinese critics and social media users. Your post said they “did not address the long history of change within the game” as if that detail justified the cultural appropriation? This line alone of your post made me think that the Mahjong Line doesn’t see the problem in using the Chinese culture without recognition as you seem to always believe it is “American” and the “American history” makes it so. You also said the articles don’t address “the current marketplace” which again is irrelevant to the cultural appropriation. Nonetheless, the article written by Complex does highlight white businesses who have successfully appreciated the Chinese game of Mahjong in their original sets such as Louis Vuitton and Maison Martin Margiela.
You continue to gaslight the social media mob saying their mentality is dangerous and not conducive to dialogue or learning. How can the Mahjong Line blame the social media users for not being conducive to dialogue and learning? You are not entitled to our time and efforts to educate you. We already suffered the emotional toll of experiencing another instance of cultural appropriation and spent time sharing our viewpoints on your page and we were ignored, blocked, and now blamed for not being part of the dialogue. Chinese people are not your tools to learn about cultural appropriation– that is on you. If a person of colour comes forward to share their opinion and even educate you on your mistakes, that’s more than you should expect. Our criticisms were not “dangerous”, they were honest, sincere, and 100% authentic from each and every one of us.
The original business model was harmful to the Chinese community and the response was less than apologetic and continued to perpetuate your false openness to criticism and victimize yourselves. However, there has been an effort to include Chinese history into the business and add philanthropic efforts (which I’m wondering only why they only came about after the cultural appropriation criticism and social media hiatus?). Despite these efforts, the Mahjong Line still managed to exclude Chinese voices from the history of the game and your business. Your first two guests to delve into the history of Mahjong are two white males: Tony Watson and John Davis. I’m sure they are knowledgeable in the game, but how is it appropriate to exclude Chinese Mahjong player voices that can authentically explain the Chinese history of their game? I would have loved to share this comment under that specific post, however, comments are as always, turned off. The Mahjong Line claims to have restructured their business in response to the backlash, but how are you really including Chinese voices and our history appropriately? Do you have cultural consultants that ensure the business is not harming the Chinese community and giving suggestions on how to avoid cultural appropriation? From what I’ve seen, I definitely don’t think so.
The Mahjong Line’s mantra is “live and learn”, so I sincerely hope you’ll live by this mantra and take my viewpoint as a representative of many Chinese people’s criticism to heart and turn it into something productive for the business. As you have mentioned, it is a steep learning curve, which the Mahjong Line has yet to make much progress on.
An open letter to the Mahjong Line is a piece written in response to a white-owned business that have "refreshed" Mahjong sets for $400 by appropriating the traditional Chinese game. After facing a wave of criticism in January, the Mahjong Line have continued their cultural appropriation by profiting off Asian history while shutting out Chinese voices. I wrote this letter to hold the Mahjong Line accountable while the spotlight fades away and they silently continue their exploitation of the Chinese culture and history.
Kerry Yang is a high school student in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada with a passion for social justice, education, and science. As a first generation Chinese-Canadian, she's faced the same identity challenges and struggles as countless other Asian youth. Despite efforts to erase her culture from a young age, Kerry has learned to embrace and pride herself on her Chinese roots and has dedicated herself to fighting for the same personal acceptance within other BIPOC youth. Her passion for education has led her to create a national school supply drive that send school supplies to students across the world every year in order to bridge education disparities and equip students with the tools for success. In Kerry's spare time, she immerses herself in science, often competing at the national level with her research on antibiotic resistance and colorectal cancer.
Cover Photo Source: Dieline