What happens when three white women “discover” an ancient Chinese game and reinvent it to bring it “to the stylish masses”? The internet gets pissed. Read on to find out why the internet has been up in arms about The Mahjong Line.
What is The Mahjong Line?
According to their About Us page (that has now since been rewritten), The Mahjong Line is a company that sells “respectfully refreshed” mahjong sets. It all started when a certain Kate found the artwork of traditional tiles “all the same”. Traditional tiles didn’t “reflect the fun she had” when playing, and they didn’t mirror “her style and personality”.
And so, after deciding that the game needed a “respectful refresh”, she and her friends Annie and Bianca came up with this product line:
What they created was a more colorful version of the game with different artworks on each tile. The company launched in 2020, but when the internet took notice of it in early January 2021, it blew up — and not in a good way.
What’s happening? Colonizers Annie, Bianca and Kate have discovered a new and improved tile game, once known as mahjong but now is a reflection of their individual style and fun. This is a textbook example of #culturalappropriation so happy 2021 everyone. pic.twitter.com/EYNpwmeRFR
— “it’s allergies not Covid19, dear Caucasian” (@mskathykhang) January 4, 2021
There’s a reason why mahjong tiles haven’t changed
Mahjong tiles have the same designs because mahjong moves fast. You are SUPPOSED TO RECOGNIZE YOUR TILES IN JUST A GLANCE TO MAKE FASTER CHOICES. In your bid to sell a $425 mahjong tile set you wound up taking away the whole point of mahjong. THAT’S LITERALLY WHAT COLONIZING DOES https://t.co/K1P8KTlldI
— Rin Chupeco (THE EVER CRUEL KINGDOM out now!) (@RinChupeco) January 5, 2021
The reason why tiles haven’t changed after hundreds of years isn’t because of a lack of imagination. They’re supposed to look the same because it’s a fast-paced game that requires players to instantly recognize their tiles. Some hardcore players are able to know what their tiles are just from touching them. The Mahjong Line came out with sets that may be more Instagrammable, but by playing around with different icons, colors, and themes, every player would have to familiarize themselves with the sets, making it impractical.
Does this mean Mahjong tiles should always stay the same?
Of course not. But there’s a difference between doing a mindful redesign that’s respectful to the culture and doing something just for the aesthetic. One Twitter user pointed out that by redesigning the icons, some of the tiles don’t even make sense anymore:
you see that 4th tile? the one in the $325 set? it looks like a 口 right? THAT FUCKING MEANS MOUTH IN CHIENSE. They took 四 which means 4 and managed to fuck it up with horrible color contrast. the one next to it that says 3? Looks an awful lot like 二 which big surprise means 2! pic.twitter.com/fHCGiqORxp
— untitled.ai (@christinacyoung) January 5, 2021
This wasn’t a “respectful redesign”, this was straight-up whitewashing.
A lack of cultural sensitivity
This lack of cultural sensitivity was blatantly obvious in the brand’s social media.
— Hong S. Yoong (@BusinessGamer20) January 5, 2021
The said photos of the founders wearing “kimonos” — along with all the other photos of the founders and some happy customers — have since been taken down from the website, but this whole brouhaha just begs the question: why weren’t there any Asians on their team? There didn’t seem to be any Asian faces in any of their photos. After all, it’s not like they’d be hard-pressed to find Asians who know what the mahjong tiles represent; according to 2019 data, Texas has an Asian population of over 1.4 million.
Also, can we draw your attention to that price tag?
The Mahjong Line’s products come with a $325-$425 price tag. Now, luxury mahjong sets aren’t unheard of (recently, Hermès came out with a $40,400 [approximately P2 MILLION]), but The Mahjong Line’s products ticked the internet off because they’re just not well-designed, plus they were clearly designed with white people in mind.
There’s a Dallas-based “what if mahjong, but for white people?” company. In addition to the $325-425 price tag, the color palettes are jarring and ugly. Also calling a line “minimal” but stamping it with both symbols and numbers defeats the point: https://t.co/T17D8Psz5B pic.twitter.com/yWo3bxH6qo
— Karen K. Ho (Doomscrolling Reminder Lady) (@karenkho) January 4, 2021
So with overpriced, whitewashed products, it’s no wonder people were calling this “gentrification”.
i can’t believe i’m watching the gentrification of MAHJONG. i know my lola is screaming somewhere in heaven rn lmao. pic.twitter.com/H4H2tMcBGu
— telepatty ⁷ 🍙 (@SPRlNGBAE) January 4, 2021
WTF is “American Mahjong”?
When the backlash first started, the folks behind The Mahjong Line seemed to justify themselves by attempting to separate “American Mahjong” from the Chinese game.
they even try to pardon themselves by discrediting chinese culture’s creation of the game by titling it “American Mahjong” and crediting an American businessman. pic.twitter.com/xItoW2yR1J
— Cindy Duong (@cinderino_) January 5, 2021
Of course, nobody bought it, cause “American Mahjong” isn’t a thing, shouldn’t ever be a thing, so they should stop making it happen.
When appreciation becomes appropriation
Don’t get us wrong, mahjong isn’t just for Asian people. It’s a fun game that anybody can learn and appreciate. But people need to learn that other cultures don’t exist for them to “discover” and “make their own”. The American non-profit Greenheart sums it up perfectly:
“Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. Appropriation, on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.”
Any word from the founders?
In response to the overwhelming backlash, the founders have issued this statement on their website and socials:
“While our intent is to inspire and engage with a new generation of American mahjong players, we recognize our failure to pay proper homage to the game’s Chinese heritage. Using words like ‘refresh’ were hurtful to many and we are deeply sorry.
“We are always open to constructive criticism and are continuing to conduct conversations with those who can provide further insight to the game’s traditions and roots in both Chinese and American cultures.”
They have turned the comments off on their Instagram.
What do you think of The Mahjong Line brouhaha? Sound off in the comments below!