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The Mahjong Line and Cultural Appropriation

Source: The Bizz USA

By Isabelle Sitchon; Edited by Haarika Kalahasti

For most of us, the talk of cultural appropriation has been prominent in our lives. For others, cultural appropriation hasn’t reached their ears at all. Near the beginning of 2021, the Mahjong Line sparked controversy across the nation with its “respectful refresh.” The company called for a modern, “stylish” redesign to the traditional Mahjong pieces, charging around $300-$400 for replacements of classic Chinese designs with bags of flour and cutesy thunderstorms.

The reasoning behind the need to redesign the classic Chinese set was company co-founder Kate LaGere’s experience buying her first Mahjong set. She had felt that tiles, “while beautiful”, “did not reflect the fun that was had when playing with her friends.” LaGere saw “so much potential” in the game and was determined to give the game a refresh to “bring [it] to the stylish masses.” Kate, along with her friends Annie and Bianca, thus launched the “modern makeover” of the Mahjong set in November 2020.

However, the new, chic “Mahjong Line” did not settle right with the public. All over social media, people criticized the company for their approach towards their redesign--and that backlash was justified. On the company’s About Us page, the three women had made it seem as if their new version of Mahjong would be the version to ultimately reach the modern masses as “playable works of art.” Rather than refining the staple designs, the company had gentrified it.

Why might this be dangerous? The “Mahjong Line” had culturally appropriated the game. Meaning to say, the company had adopted or improved the game to cater to their own style, without acknowledging the Chinese creators who made it. Kate noted that the game “came [nothing] close to mirroring her style and personality.” As a result, many of the tiles were changed to appeal to a fresher audience. Many felt as though the redesign made it even harder for beginners to play the game. This was evidence that there was little to no cultural education invested in the company’s projects.

“My culture is one of the oldest civilizations in the world,” Twitter user Jeremy Lee (@JeremyLeeSF) wrote, “It is a product of thousands of years of tradition and history. My culture [is] not some cheap coloring book that can be filled in and be ‘made pretty’ by the standards of privileged teenyboppers.”

On the company’s About Us page, there is a short section about the “American vs. Chinese Mahjong.” The company discussed how Mahjong had originally developed its popularity in the U.S. through American businessman Joseph Babcock, who had brought back a Mahjong set in the 1920s after working overseas in China. Joseph Babcock had published his book, Rules for Maj-Jongg: The Red Book of Rules, which earned Mahjong its distinct popularity throughout the years. The game of Mahjong had soon evolved into a game that was “distinctly American.” While it’s no doubt that a classic board game such as Mahjong would evolve over the years, the American approach towards a traditionally Chinese game is a clear example of cultural appropriation. With the addition of jokers into the game, the original Mahjong game would be altered into a way Americans could enjoy. This was just one instance in which Asian culture was culturally appropriated and ignored, with businessmen such as Joseph Babcock finding profit.

On January 5, 2021, the Mahjong line acknowledged their cultural mistakes and released a public statement:

“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,” the company said, “Using words like ‘refresh’ was hurtful to many and we are deeply sorry.”

The company promised to “conduct conversations with those who can provide further insight to the game’s traditions and roots in both Chinese and American cultures.” However, it has not posted any updates or posts on its social media, but its Mahjong sets are still on its website for sale.

The “Mahjong Line” is one of many examples of cultural appropriation in today’s society. It is extremely important to preserve the origins of other cultures. Taking a certain aspect of one culture and altering or wearing it to your heart’s content without respect to the original creator would harm those whose culture is a part of their identity. A person of color may go through discriminatory experiences because of their background and heritage, but another person may wear box-braids or a gentrified kimono for “fashion” and be praised for it. Another person’s culture is not your trend to jump on, but it is something to appreciate.

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