Mahjong, a tile-based game of strategy with roots in the Qing Dynasty of Ancient China, is celebrated across Asia and invokes memories of family, tradition and togetherness for many who played it growing up. When three white women founded a new company called The Mahjong Line, touting sets that intended to replace the traditional tiles with “stylish” ones, they faced immense backlash, with Asian Americans and Asians around the word calling the move cultural appropriation.
“I understand wanting your own custom set, but modifying it to be literally indiscernible is problematic,” Yonnie Chan told Inside Edition Digital. Chan grew up in Hong Kong and currently lives in Toronto, Canada. “Not using [Chinese characters] also reflects the fact that you are erasing an integral piece of Chinese culture, which is where this game originated from.”
Their game sets, nicknamed “cheeky” and “whimsical,” are priced between $325 and $425.
“It's offensive in a way that's almost hard to put your finger on,” Andrew Ti of the podcast “Yo, Is This Racist?” told Inside Edition Digital. “Except for the fact that one of the hallmarks of cultural appropriation is profiting from culture.”
For Chan, the most jarring thing is that the tiles have been changed to the point of being almost unrecognizable from the mahjong she knew and loved growing up.
In some sets, flower tiles are changed to sacks of flour with western pastries on the corners, and bamboo tiles were swapped with the words “bam.” Many of their sets took out Chinese characters altogether, replacing them with more conventional Arabic numerals and English words.
Other companies, including luxury designers like Louis Vuitton and Hermès, that have revamped mahjong sets in the past have typically kept the traditional characters and symbols.
“Why do we have to change something that was perfectly normal and was easy to understand to something that is somehow more appealing?” Chan said. “Why isn’t our culture enough for you to appreciate?”
Chan said she closely associates mahjong with bonding and family. “Before my grandparents on my dad's side passed away, we would have a couple of tables of Mahjong going on at once between the adults and the kids at family gatherings. At the time, I was too young to know how to play,” she recalled. “Lots of loud conversation amidst tiles banging on that fuzzy table … it’s forever burned into my memory.”
Ti felt similarly. “It was almost always watching my family members, my dad in particular play Mahjong in the sort of separate, smoky back room while the kids were running around,” he said. “He'll come up to me and apparently when I was a young kid, I would just say, ‘Who's winning? Who's winning?’ And he still says, ‘Who's winning?’ whenever we're together at some point.”
The founders of The Mahjong Line have since apologized, saying their approach to the game was “hurtful to many, and we are sorry.”
Their statement continued, “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.”
And despite the backlash, The Mahjong Line is continuing to sell their game sets.
“This is what the Asian culture calls saving face,” Chan said of the apology.
For her and others like her, it spoke to a larger issue of what they say is cultural appropriation in America.
In Utah, many identified the case of a white high school student who wore a traditional Chinese dress to prom as a case of cultural appropriation, sparking the meme-worthy catchphrase, “my culture is not your f****** prom dress.”
Chan explained that cultural garb like the one she wore in the prom photos that have since gone viral was “something that we grew up with and were mocked relentlessly for.”
The Utah student said she wore the dress to appreciate Chinese culture and didn’t intend any racism or cultural appropriation.
In New York City, the white couple behind the restaurant Lucky Lee’s faced backlash for claiming to serve “clean” Chinese food. They compared their restaurant with other Chinese restaurants, saying their food is not “oily” and “salty” like their counterparts’.
“The idea that Chinese food is greasy and unhealthy and cheap and sweet is because white Americans required that to allow Chinese people to survive, and then to have that sort of thrown back in our face as like, this is why it's disgusting,” Ti said.
The owners have since apologized. The restaurant closed less than a year later.
But critics say intention is not always synonymous with effect where cultural appropriation is concerned.
“We’ve seen it many times in the past, where white Americans sort of think they can, with a very limited relationship to Chinese culture, try to improve or update or clean or sanitize,” Ti explained. "White America, the dominant culture I suppose, takes the pieces of art they enjoy, profit from it, sanitize it for their consumption, continue to denigrate the people who actually originated it. That's sort of the danger and the disgust."