In this op-ed, writer Sara Li unpacks a recent instance of three white women appropriating the Chinese game mahjong for profit.
The year has barely begun and another case of cultural appropriation has inserted itself into online discourse. In the first week of 2021, three white women made waves on social media when they launched a deeply bastardized version (or as they refer to it, a “modern makeover”) of the traditional Chinese game mahjong under their new company, the Mahjong Line.
Mahjong, a household tile game that likely originated in Asia in the mid-to-late 1800s (some believe the game’s origins go all the way back to Confucius, around 500 B.C.), has seen increased popularity in the States since the 1920s, as writer Tyler Chin noted for Gear Patrol. Like many Chinese folks, I grew up with fond memories of mahjong being played by grandparents and aunties. Ask any member of our diverse community and you’ll find the role of mahjong highlighted in our upbringing. It’s even found pop culture significance in films like Crazy Rich Asians, where mahjong is both a literal and metaphorical sparring match.
The beauty of mahjong is that it’s a game meant to be shared, which this community does happily and often. But what the Mahjong Line did wasn’t a loving embrace of an already-beloved game — it was a complete obliteration of the rich history behind the four-player pastime.
On an older version of its website, the Mahjong Line boasted that it was founded by Kate LeGere, Annie O’Grady, and Bianca Watson, after LeGere was unable to find a mahjong set of her liking. According to screenshots of the site, “Nothing came close to mirroring [LeGere’s] style and personality,” which led the three women to “respectfully refresh” the game and “bring mahjong to the stylish masses.”
Even more upsetting than the up-charge of the set ($325 for the “Minimal Lines” style to $425 for the “Botanical Line” and “Cheeky Line”) is the idea that non-American traditions are invalid until they’ve been made over into something nearly indistinguishable from the original. Sure, with each generation that plays, designs and trends are bound to change; but there is a difference between a natural evolution of a hobby and the gentrification of a recreational activity.
As many people pointed out, the Mahjong Line didn’t just rebrand the Chinese history behind the game: it wiped it out altogether to be repackaged as something more suitable for the white gaze. It’s a side effect of colonization that we’re still seeing in beauty trends, fashion trends, and, yes, even game sets.