The Gentrification of Mahjong and The "Apology"
a personal essay by Cathay Lau
Dear Asian Youth,
I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I came across a post that was… for lack of a better word, intriguing. It was from a popular fashion and culture Instagram account which essentially covered three white women and their colonisation of an ancient game that millions from my culture know and love. You guessed it, Mahjong. You see, mahjong was something close to my heart; it is a traditional Chinese tile game that my grandparents taught me how to play., a link between generations. Their figures sat around a felt green table; the sounds of porcelain-like tiles clacking together has always been an image that brought me great comfort due to its familiarity. I have a fond memory of finding out about electric Mahjong tables for the first time which would rearrange tiles for the next round without the players having to do it manually. To say that I was thrilled would be an understatement. Nevertheless, something about this Instagram post didn’t sit right with me.
I would recommend you buy one of these Mahjong sets (in this case, specifically the ‘botanical set’) if you have a casual $425 lying round, and if you would describe yourself as a “Francophile” (a person who is fond of or greatly admires France or the French) who is quote “a master of teasing the senses”. As if this description of the consumer isn’t enough for us, the Mahjong sets are wiped of their original suits/symbols and replaced with symbols of leaves, berries, various shapes of nature, and random arrangements of the onomatopoeic word “BAM”. The justification behind this erasure of the original symbols is allegedly due to the founder wanting to buy a mahjong set and believing that “nothing came close to mirroring her style and personality”. It seems that the ancient game that has unified millions of Chinese people simply did not align with her aesthetic. This is further supported when she allegedly writes that she wished to “bring Mahjong to the stylish masses” in an explanation which bears eerie resemblance to what I would call a microaggression due to its implication that traditional Chinese mahjong is not up to her fashionable standard (as if it matters). The site also has a page titled “Mahjong Tales” where they encourage us to send in “a haiku or two”, a form of poetry which is widely known to originate from Japan. Furthermore, the tiles themselves in an ironic prediction are made in (you guessed it again), China. This fact, of course, seems to be dodged in an unsurprisingly coded paragraph on the production area of their website.
Okay, I’ll cut the company some slack. They apologised… somewhat. In a small section of their page titled “Our Story” under the subtitle “Criticism”, they address this controversy in an indirect half apology. From the title of the page alone, it seems that rather than acknowledging their own poor actions, they wish to place the focus on the audience for daring to criticize them at all. Besides only addressing Asian Americans in disregard for every other East Asian and South-East Asian community in the world, they also only address two counts of poor wording choices, never write out the words ‘sorry’ or ‘apologise’, and insist that we as the concerned audience “are not aware of the existence of American Mahjong as an established game, one that has been celebrated in the U.S. for over 100 years”. Although I am not denying that ‘American Mahjong’ is a game that many have played, I do believe that the blatant avoidance of Chinese influence and origin is unacceptable. To take a culture's invention and render it into a shell of what it originally was in efforts to westernize it is, at its very core, what gentrification is. This half-hearted response provokes the idea that perhaps this ‘apology’ was only done in an effort to hide behind the performative activism that is exhibited unfortunately by many companies today. If gentrifying another culture's game is a way of illustrating white solidarity, then it disregards the concerns of Asian communities and perpetuating the falsehood of performative activism. Perhaps the company is taking small steps to improving though, as they now have a page named “History of the Game” which includes the history and context of the Chinese games’ origins with useful sources. Something in my core tells me that they’ve only included this in their penance for being criticised and definitely not for recognising their wrongdoing. I suppose the real question here is where the line between good natured profit making and greedy exploitation of another's culture comes into view.
- Cathay Lau