Ahhh….. Mahjong, the quintessential game that is associated with Chinese people the world over and it really is a fun game to play. It is deeply rooted in not only Chinese culture as a whole but especially rooted in Hong Kong culture in many ways.
I wont get into the deep history of the game dating back to ancient China, you can do that research on your own. Here, I’m going to just give some history of the Hong Kong scene as it was and is today.
It’s safe to say that pretty much every person from Hong Kong has some sort of experience with the game of Mahjong. Mahjong is played at home with family. People rent Mahjong rooms at Mahjong clubs with their friends and play through the night. Restaurants have specials that you can play Mahjong and have a break to eat a nice meal and then continue to play for a few more hours. When going to banquets of all types in Hong Kong, if you get there early you can have time to get your Mahjong on. Housewives play hours and hours of the game and seniors are told that it is a great game to keep dementia and Alzheimer away as it helps to keep the mind working to play regularly. Chinese New Year is met with multiple days of Mahjong at different places through-out the three day festival. It truly is the game of the people of Hong Kong as you can also look over shoulders in the MTR and see people playing it on their phones and even live games can be played of your phone.
People who do play usually have a set of tiles in a box somewhere and at least have a Mahjong board to slide on top of their table or have a folding table that can also be used for entertaining more people at their home. Some people who really like playing have a fancy electric table that with a push of the button ‘washes’ the tiles. ‘Washing’ of tiles is after a hand is played and all the tiles need to be mixed up ‘washed’ together to set up the walls to start the next game. The electric tables set all the tiles up and rise out of the table nice and quiet like. I think the washing by hand on the table adds to the fun of the game and the skill of staking the walls is a necessary skill that players need to have. Early on in your learning you squeeze the tiles so tight to get them on the second tier and they explode everywhere. It’s great.
How to Play
There are a few different varieties of Mahjong but they’re all played with the same principal of getting 3-4 of a kind or 3 in sequential order of the same suit. You take turns taking a tile and putting a tile that you don’t want back at which people can take if it gives them 3 of a kind pong (碰) or if the next to you in the direction of play needs it for the sequence of 3 tiles seung(上). If you’ve ever played the card game Gin Rummy then you know how to play Mahjong. It’s actually quite easy.
There are 4 of each tile in the whole set of 144 tiles so you have to actively keep a count of how many of a tile have been discarded and if you really get into it, you watch to see who is discarding what to try to guess what they have in their hand. You don’t want to give them the piece that they need to win or you will lose more than the other players.
Gambling is a big part of the game’s popularity as it is widely known that a lot of Asians have a penchant for wagering bets on just about anything. Mahjong is almost never played without some sort of denomination being won or lost, even if it is in the cents category of money. In my early days of wanting to get some practice in and trying to find people to play with me so that I could learn to play. I would ask people if we could play for free and no-one had any interest in playing with me once I asked that question. Needless to say, I lost a pretty penny cutting my teeth on getting comfortable being on the table with the big boys.
It is this aspect of the game that also creates fanatics about playing and shows the dark side of people once they lose a few dollars. Many people always mention that back in the day, a father would invite his daughter’s boyfriend over for a game of Mahjong to test his character and see how he reacts when he loses at the table.
Different styles of play determine how much you lose on each hand. Often playing with people you know you play a style that usually take more time and once the hand is won you count up the points faan (番) and based on the predetermined amount that is stated before play starts and usually written down is what you will pay or collect. A lot of people don’t have a clear understanding sometimes on how to count the faan and always rely on others. This also sometimes creates a bit of debate after some hands when interesting combos are held by the winner that equal a greater number of faan.
Just don’t cheut chung (出冲) as this always means that you will pay the winner. This means that you gave the winning piece to the person that won. Depending on which style you play, if you don’t cheut chung then you may go a long time without paying out any money at all.
In the Mahjong parlours around Hong Kong, they use a style called ‘Running Horse (跑馬仔)’ Mahjong. This means that the game is set up to win/lose very quickly as a parlour is basically a casino that only has one type of game to play. This style has it that no matter what you end up paying money for every hand that you play so that you can’t just sit there and not spend any money. The parlour will get a cut of every hand as well and that’s how they make their money.
Now this is where Mahjong in Hong Kong stands out as a solid cultural experience that can not be replicated elsewhere. The parlours have such a great history about themselves that when walking by you’re curious as to what is going on inside. The doors are closed and you can hear the clatter of the tiles moving around and see people going in and out and always try to get a glimpse inside when the doors swing open.
Movies gave Mahjong parlours a bad rep and while it is true that Triads have a bit of an interest in the Mahjong parlours it isn’t as seedy as it once may have been. Now you see nice electric tables and big chairs, good ventilation systems cleaning that cigarette smoke out as quickly as it is puffed. The services that the Mahjong parlours now provide are great from all you can eat and drink to going to the market for that housewife to pick-up the evening meal that will later be cooked for the family. You often even see the guys that work at the parlours in their vests going to the ATM to get money out for players. All in an attempt to keep them playing and letting those dollars hit the table.
The first licensed parlour opened in 1956 to Lam Kwok-keung and he opened Kai Kee on Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei. Since then the government has allowed Mahjong gaming to happen under the letter of the law and is routinely busting underground Mahjong spots every year. You can still find Kai Kee doing business just up the street from where the first place was and it is a nice looking place with brisk business and with a few other locations as well.
Recently, a Mahjong parlour in San Po Kong opened its doors to the public to see what the old school parlours looked like and how they did business. There was a line down the block when I arrived to see the exhibition.
The place was set up like a museum almost with a video presentation and then a guided tour around the parlour to show the different elements of the business on the inside. Although many people love the game, very few in comparison have ever stepped foot inside a Mahjong parlour. It was quite a treat to see inside and get a feel of how the ‘secretive’ (which actually isn’t) world of the Mahjong parlour looks and smells like.
The parlour can be a fun place to visit if you like to play and think that you have the skill to play quickly and want to test your luck against some strangers. The beauty of the parlour is that you can just walk in and always have someone to play with (because you need four people) and if you just want the experience then you can play one or two hands and get up and leave. Those one or two hands will only take about 5 or 10 minutes and would give you a great first hand experience of what it’s like to play in a Mahjong parlour.
Mahjong is a great game that can be played with your friends and family. The feeling of playing is very fun and enticing as there is lots of chit chatting and fun poking at each other. There are specialty terms and that gives you a feeling of being apart of something. There are many people that do not know how to play at all and have no interest at all in playing. Some people have seen family members play a lot and gamble a lot and that image puts them off from wanting to take up the game but others really like it because it brings people together and is played for hours at a time.
If you’re learning Cantonese, then Mahjong is a great way to socialize and learn some Cantonese at an authentic level with tons of new and old expressions to learn and major points if trying to get on the good side of a mother or father-in-law. You will quickly be welcomed into the family provided that you’re a quick learner and not a ‘water fish’ (水魚). A water fish is essentially a sucker in gambling that is quick to lose money.
I hope that everyone can have a chance to learn the game and enjoy as it’s history goes back a few thousand years when the tiles were made of wood, bone or ivory. There are now even world competitions where players can win millions of dollars and become celebrity players. So try your luck but remember, don’t cheut chung!