Boarding House Blues

East Meets West

1 May 2023

Just like chop suey, Mah Jong has its roots in China but was adopted in a modified form in the US.

The game originated in and around Shanghai in the mid to late 1800s (there is some debate when it exactly began, where, and by whom), but had its US introduction in the mid-1920s through Joseph Park Babcock, a Standard Oil employee who first encountered the original game on a ship on the Yangtze River.  Babcock simplified the game, added Arabic numerals and Western letters, and trademarked the name “Mah-Jongg” for exports back to America.

The first Mah Jong sets were sold at Abercrombie & Fitch in 1920. The game took off and soon became a fad across the country when 'Chinoiserie' and all things Oriental were all the rage. Singer Eddie Cantor even recorded a 1924 song called “Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong.”

In its simplest form, Mah Jong comprises 136 ivory (or now plastic) domino-like tiles. They are divided into sets known as: Bamboo, Characters, Dots, Dragons, and Winds. Some sets come with additional tiles (usually Flowers, Jokers, red tiles and/or blanks) which are used for variations of the game. The goal, much like rummy, is to get four sets and a pair.

Mah Jong was especially popular with fashionable young women and was played everywhere from clubs to the beach. President and First Lady Harding played embraced the game, as did Hollywood celebrities. But from the start, Jewish women were some of the most ardent players. In fact, the founders of the National Mah Jong League (1937) were all Jewish women. They are responsible for the most popular form of Mah Jong played today, which is referred to as “American Mah Jong”.

After the fad ended, many of the rules Babcock devised were discarded, and people went back to following the original rules of the game.

Fun fact #1: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was built in 1926 on Hollywood Boulevard.

Fun Fact #2: The game was completely banned in China in 1949. The People’s Republic of China declared it to be outlawed, along with other gambling activities. Those in power considered Mah Jong and other games like it to be a representation of capitalist corruption.


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