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Hong Kong Mahjong Culture 香港麻將文化

Faat Choy

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.

Folding Mahjong tablePeople 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.Automatic_mahjong_table

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

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.

The Parlour

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.

Lam Kwok-keungThe 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.

Finally

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!

 

KOMK

San po gong1
San Po Kong 新蒲崗
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Newspaper clipping from way back
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Letter from the British government addressing the change in legislation about Mahjong
Old style parlour tables
Old style parlour tables

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table tags are hung above to show gambling amount to players
Table tags are hung above to show gambling amount to players
Rules are posted outside of all Mahjong parlours
Rules are posted outside of all Mahjong parlours
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Cantonese is a must

Back in March I came across this article and meant to comment on it sooner, but as we all know ‘life’ gets in the way of some things.  My small allotted time for writing on this site has been purged back and back that for the past 7 months I haven’t been able to really sit down here and write anything.  Yet, I have been saving some thoughts on this article and better late than never is what they always say, right?

DeWolf makes some really good points and kind of covers all of the bases in terms of expat Cantonese learning in Hong Kong.  He himself being an expat in Hong Kong with few Cantonese skills to ‘speak’ of, makes good mention to the moral responsibility to learn Cantonese.

The moral responsibility is something that I find at times to be at the forefront of spending some of your precious time to take some classes and learn Cantonese.  In America, there are a lot of people who bark a big game of foreigners living there ‘must’ learn to speak English or as some have put it unknowingly accurately, they should learn to speak ‘American’.  I think that the same sentiment is there for Cantonese in Hong Kong.  I often question how is it that someone can live here in Hong Kong and not be able to speak to people or to understand what is going on around them?

I am fully aware that English is one of Hong Kong’s official languages and that there is a great base of English in everyone here in Hong Kong but when living in a culture that is so rich and so dependant upon language to access that richness, how could you not learn Cantonese?

DeWolf mentions the difficulty of the language as a barrier to a degree for learning Cantonese.  This point is a very valid one and is important to make when thinking about a lot of people wanting to learn versus those that actually stick with it and learn Cantonese to a certain level of proficiency.   When searching the Internet to see what is the most difficult language to learn in the whole wide world, guess which language pops up as being just about the most difficult to learn?  That’s right Cantonese.

Since Cantonese is so well known for it being difficult to learn, it is understandable as to why so many people give up or don’t even try to learn it.  When the city itself is so accepting of English and money is never lost by a customers’ lack of Cantonese, it is easy to see why so many expats in Hong Kong could really care less about the local language.

A statement made in the article that I 500% do not agree with is the quote from Kevin Chan of Chinese University. He said, “If you look like a foreigner, it’s not easy to practice what you’ve learned”.  From my experience and from what I have written in my previous posts about learning Cantonese.  It is EXTREMELY EASY to practice what you’ve learned from your lessons.  You just have to have thick skin and stick to your guns when on the street.  Stay in character!

The Cedric Sam wisdom in the article is very much true in the opinion of the King of Mongkok.  Life in Hong Kong becomes so much more full once you are able to rap with the people around you.  Once getting to a level of fluency and possessing good proficiency in Cantonese, your entire world opens up.  People that you only knew in English may have a completely different demeanour in Cantonese.  Discounts start to come your way around town because locals give you a bit more respect at times when they see that you have given their culture respect by learning their language.  And everyone wants to help you speak better.  Even if they do laugh at you a bit, it’s okay.

Overall, I think that it is a good article to read through and see where is it that you fall in the equation for the quest of Cantonese tongue flipping.  I sometimes think about how I would be getting by in Hong Kong, had I not spent so much time and energy learning Cantonese. I also think about how people are getting around not speaking Cantonese?

Hong Kong just becomes a beautiful flower opening up to you once you learn Cantonese.  A Bauhinia flower that is.

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What is…..the Ladies Market like?

The Ladies Market is one of the several iconic tourist traps of Hong Kong.  Every person to ever visit Hong Kong since the 80’s has most likely taken a walk through the Ladies Market.

What does the Ladies Market have?

It’s not what its name suggests.  Back in the day, the street used to sell mainly ladies garments.  The government thought it would be better to regulate it as it was becoming quite popular and busy.  Thus it was dubbed the Ladies Market.  It now houses all the nick-nacks you could possibly want.  From clothes for your pooch to fake LV bags.  From kids clothes to fake Disney products.  From tourist T-shirts to fake Rolexes.  Okay you get the idea.

Yep, fake branded bags
Yep, fake branded bags

Tung Choi Street

The Ladies Market is on Tung Choi Street and aside from the centre part of the street which makes the market, the street itself has restaurants and shops lining both sides of the street that many tourists never see.

Because of how the market area is constructed, you can spend your whole time getting visual stimulus overload from the enormity of all of the things lining every booth from the ground to about 15 feet up.  Also, the market is about 5 good blocks long, stretching from Argyle Street to Dundas Street.  While a lot of the booths sell about the same type of goods and you will soon realise that you saw that same ‘I heart HK’ at about 10 booths already and there is still much market laid out in front of you.flat,550x550,075,f

Coming to Life!

It’s quite amazing how the market is erected everyday.  Legally, the street can not be closed off to cars until 12:00noon.  So, all the poles and tarps that make the structure of the market are laid out on the street strategically in a manner that when the signal is given to start erecting this giant erector set, they get it done quickly.  In a matter of about 20 minutes you can witness the entire market take it’s shape.  They then start to bring in the inventory in separate wheeled containers.  The market is then broken down in an opposite manner come about 11something p.m. as the street needs to be open again by 12:00midnight.

I often just go early to watch how they build the market.  It is truly quite amazing how the various street markets in Hong Kong are constructed in a similar fashion.  Built up and torn down every day.  Massive amounts of inventory take out and set up to be taken down that evening.

Tips for market shopping

I know everyone always tells you to never pay the asking price for things in Asia.  It is true though.  Even if you just haggle enough to get a few HKD off of your price then you will be given a market shopping approval by the sales person.  Keeping in mind that really all of the stuff on the market isn’t really anything that you need and it is all inexpensive for the most part. So, don’t haggle too much!  Most importantly, never buy anything right away.  As I mentioned, there are a lot of booths selling the same thing.  If you see it and buy it right away you risk seeing it somewhere else for a better price.  Even just see what starting price they throw out at you first and feel out the sales person’s personality.  Do they seem nice and kind of playful to engage with some banter?  Or are they giving off the attitude that tells you that they really don’t want to be bothered with you?  They don’t really value the customer very much in a way.  They see so many people everyday as it is a tourist area that the money will come either from you or the next person that is already ready with money in his hands or looks like they will pay any amount just as long as they can get that fake antique looking Chinese fan.

The walk off.  The ‘walk off’ is a great strategy.  You haggle a bit and then politely say, ‘No, thank you!’ and walk off.  Most likely if you haggled to a price that seemed reasonable to the sales girl but she just didn’t want to give in because she wanted to see if you’d break first, will chase you down the street saying ‘Ok, Ok’.  You will smile and you will feel victorious.  It’s a good feeling too.  You haggled $2 off of that Angry Bird change purse that you’re going to give your niece only to leave it in your suitcase or something and never end up giving it to her.

Lastly, the market can be fun in my opinion.  As a date night, this is a great place to have some fun.  Walk through the market and see everything that is there and when you’re tired of walking, jump into one of the many cafes that are on the street and relax or have a dinner at one of the many restaurants.  I recommend Bonnie’s Thai Restaurant.  Take some pictures for your Facebook page for the world to see.  It’s a fun place.  Don’t feel compelled to buy anything and just soak up the atmosphere.  It is crowded almost all of the time so keep that in mind and don’t let it bother you.  There is much fun to be had here.

KOMK

 

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End of the Road!

Sai Yeung Choi Street South:

This was a great street if not the greatest street in all of Mongkok/Hong Kong.  This street would be closed to cars from 4pm and stay that way until 12 o’clock at night every day.  Saturday and Sunday it would seem like it never opened to cars at all.  It was great because Hong Kong and Mongkok more importantly needed/needs streets like this that people can just walk down slowly and enjoy being out in the world.  Now sadly to say, it is open to cars full time and only closes to cars on Sundays.

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Sai Yeung Choi Street, South

It sucks in my humble opinion.

This is the way it is supposed to look and had looked every day of the week AND like everywhere in Hong Kong, it was completely safe.

The problem as the local district council saw it was that there had been a large numbers of buskers taking to the streets on Sai Yeung Choi Street and it was keeping people from going into the stores that line the sidewalks.  Business’ were complaining that it was too loud and crowded more than usual by people standing and watching performances rather than going in stores to shop.

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Street performers (good and bad) were starting to really do their thing. Sai Yeung Choi Street, South

This is where I get a bit of the ‘well in western countries….’ because street culture and performing arts in Hong Kong is a bit unseen for the most part.  While it has increased quite a bit over the past few years, there really isn’t  too much in terms of people going out and expressing themselves artistically in Hong Kong.  It’s just the culture of being a bit passive for some things.  Also, with the heavy culture of earning money here, you can see how many would look at street performing as a waste of time because of a low earning potential.

Sai Yeung Choi Street was beginning to unleash the hidden desire in so many people to just get on the street and perform and just as it started to get good——-BAAAAM!   The government slammed the door on it.  Some people have started to move north a bit though.

Shhhhh!  Don’t let ‘the man’ know that more performers are starting to do there thang’ on the footbridge that runs above Mongkok Road to the KCR station.  More on that later.

What do you think?  Tell us about your love or disdain of Mongkok.

 

KOMK