You have heard it before: the clack-clack clacking of tiles behind closed doors. Frantic and unstoppable, hard plastic meets hard plastic while soft hands shuffle and stack, building columns until suddenly it stops and you hear a cry of “Mo2!” (摸).
Curious, you look through a crack in the boarded-up window from behind which the sounds emanate. Under fluorescent lighting, groups of elderly women are seated in every corner, four to a table, looking intently at their row of rectangular tiles. Decisions are made swiftly, a tile taken — mo2 (摸), a tile rejected: daa1 (打). Small purses sit snugly in their laps, piles of cash on the corner of each table, waiting to be distributed to the winner at the end. Suddenly, it is all over and before you realise who has won, the clacking starts again. You have stumbled upon a recreational mahjong gambling den.
Mahjong is probably the table game that most symbolises Chinese culture – and definitely the traditional culture of Hong Kong. Mahjong may be one of the ways gambling is ingrained into Chinese culture, but it is also a favourite way to kill time. Whenever there are big family gatherings, it is likely there will be a mahjong table in the corner. In the hours before the countdown to the lunar new year, waiting for food to be served at a wedding banquet or simply playing till every family member has arrived, mahjong tiles dance around in the background, adding to the chatter that Cantonese so love.
Since the Hong Kong government’s gambling ordinance was issued in 1977, the number of mahjong parlours has declined, as new licenses are no longer available. Though official outlets have closed down, that hasn’t stopped groups getting together privately to gamble away small amounts. The elderly even have a good excuse; supposedly mahjong is good exercise for the brain and helps ward off the onset of dementia.
One man has been supplying enthusiasts with mahjong sets for decades. From a rather inconspicuous shop on Wellington Street in Central, Mr. Ho can find you all sorts of mahjong sets, including those tailored to Westerners with “cheat” tiles and numbers. Wing Cheong Hong Ma Jong has been around since the late 1940s. When the newly established People’s Republic of China banned gambling in 1949, mahjong playing declined on the mainland, until the game itself was banned during the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. In Hong Kong, however, it continued to flourish, providing plenty of business for Ho and his family.
“Nowadays it is rare to see a shop specialising only in mahjong sets,” he says. “Young people are playing less and you can find them anywhere. We still provide bulk orders for big restaurants and hotels who want to provide their customers with complimentary sets during big events.” Ho’s family moved here from China and set up shop in Sheung Wan before moving to Central about forty years ago. Following in his father’s footsteps, Ho learned the trade after graduating from school and has been manning the shop himself for about thirty years.
The shop has floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with large multi-coloured mahjong tiles. While the most common plastic tiles are white and jade green, alongside them are tiles purple, blue, pink and black. Behind the counter are travel sets that come with their own wooden case, and in the display window are the prized antique sets made of bamboo and bone. When asked the price of the antique sets, Ho casually says, “Oh, in the thousands.” It remains to be negotiated.
The oldest mahjong sets discovered to date are from the 19th century, when the game was mainly played in the Zhejiang and Shanghai regions. They were traditionally made of bone or ivory backed by bamboo. Some were even made of jade, but these are rare. Nowadays, most modern sets are made with plastics such as nylon, bakelite or celluloid, with symbols engraved or pressed into the tile. Ho tells us how even if you are willing to pay, new bamboo sets are hard to come by, as they have stopped making them on the mainland. The only way to go is antique.
At the front of the shop, a large sign says “Ivory Ma Jong.” Behind Ho are ivory statues, ivory stamps, ivory bracelets, rings and chopsticks. The shop once specialised in ivory sets, but this has become controversial in recent years. With ivory hunting banned in more and more African countries, and a ban on new ivory imports to Hong Kong, the Chinese thirst for ivory products has found resistance. The selection in Wing Cheong Hong is old; remnants from another time. Ivory used to be imported from Africa and then crafted and moulded into mahjong sets in Hong Kong, but that know-how has disappeared
“Mahjong is not only a game, if someone invites you to a round or more, it is a gesture of friendship,” says Ho. “Many relationships are built around the mahjong table.” Mahjong playing has often served ulterior motives in Chinese culture. Bribes are given by intentionally losing large sums of money in favour of the person being bribed. As with many Chinese activities, superstitions come into play: players may fight over the best feng shui seat at the table, refuse to play without their lucky charm or even change their underwear after a loss.
In Hong Kong, mahjong gambling has often been glorified in movies. There is a whole genre of mahjong films that liken tile-playing skills to kung fu or martial art tactics. Often released just before Chinese New Year, they have been popular since the 1980s. “Sometimes young people seem to enjoy watching them more than actually playing the game,” says Ho. “You would be surprised at how many young people in Hong Kong don’t actually know how to play mahjong.”
On the mainland, decades after mahjong was rehabilitated following the Cultural Revolution, the government has been working hard to turn the game into an official sport. The China State Sports Commission published rules in the late 1990s, promoting mahjong as a wholesome sport with no gambling, drinking or smoking allowed. In international tournaments, China’s players are no longer individual competitors, grouped instead into a team.
In the names of efficiency and innovation, the invention of mechanical mahjong tables in China has brought in an era of quieter mahjong playing. These tables no longer require vigorous shuffling of tiles; a portion of the playing area rises the end of the game and the tiles are shoved into a hole in the centre, with four neat columns of tiles reappearing, ready to be selected and deployed. Ho doesn’t think these will replace traditional tables in Hong Kong, though. “No space for those bulky ones here,” he says. “The old simple ones are foldable and can fit anywhere, which is very important for most Hong Kong apartments. Half of the fun is shuffling the tiles!”
Where: Wing Cheong Hong Ma Jong, 101C Wellington Street, Central. +852 2541 7517.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.