“Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jongg,” sung by Eddie Cantor, sheet music courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Note: This is an encore post from 2015.
In the 1920s, life changed fast and furiously as people celebrated the Jazz Age. Dance mad, adventure-seeking flappers and flaneurs jumped from craze to craze enjoying the whirlwind of life. Games, foods, clothing, everything changed in a flash, tied to the experience hungry, new sensation-seeking younger Americans looking for excitement. Bridge, crossword puzzles, the Charleston, dance marathons, flagpole sitting, and the game of mah jongg enticed people of all ages insecure in their position and beliefs to jump onto the next big thing in order not to be left behind.
“Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jongg” by the Memphis Five.
For a few years in the 1920s, “mah jongg” became a household name and game, more popular than chess, checkers, or even certain card games. The game attracted many because of its exotic, mysterious game pieces and name, while also requiring some skill in remembering key rules and tiles.
“The Mah Jongg Blues.”
While the game ruled as one of Americans’ favorite pastimes in the mid-1920s, it existed as a potent slap in the face to ethnic Chinese Americans, who were barred from marrying whites, owning property, or even working certain jobs. Mah jongg’s popularity ironically represents the subtle or superior patronization and entitlement many whites felt toward immigrants throughout the United States, a superiority demonstrated through words and actions.
On May 6, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Anti-Exclusion Act, barring Chinese immigrants and laborers from entering the country, intended as a 10-year temporary measure. Both in 1892 and 1902, the United States’ Congress extended the act, even toughening it. This act was the first to specifically bar one ethnic group in the country, leading to illegal immigration and smuggling of migrants.
Upset over Chinese immigration in the 1840s and 1850s which saw many Chinese work in Gold Rush country or on crews building railroads, unions and Governor John Bigler sought ways to prevent “coolies” from filling low paying jobs, thus possibly reducing wages and potential job opportunities for whites. In 1858, California originally passed a law making it illegal for anyone “…of Chinese or Mongolian race” to enter the the state, struck down by the California Supreme Court in 1862.
The state of California adopted a new Constitution in 1878, which included provisions detailing which ethnic groups could live in the state, making it difficult to obtain permission to leave the country, or finding it difficult to return, thus separating men from wives and families, banned them from becoming citizens or purchasing property, and barring Chinese from working in factory or local, state, or federal jobs. These statutes remained on the books until 1943, when the United States and California ceremoniously eliminated the statutes in order to obtain Chinese support and help during World War II.
Because of the common societal belief in white superiority and paternal view of other races, many of what current society considers racist and derogatory terms were routinely employed throughout everyday conversation, magazines, films, newspaper stories, and song. Words such as coolie, chink, and Chinaman often appeared in print whenever discussion of the Chinese appeared. Ironic then, that in the mid-1920s, mah jongg stood as one of the most popular games in the United States, popular with celebrities and regular citizens, at a time when the Chinese were routinely excluded from every day life.
South Bend News-Times, Oct. 8, 1922, South Bend News-Times, Oct. 8, 1922.
Mah jongg exploded into American consciousness in 1922. The Los Angeles Times first mentions the game on February 22, 1922, stating, “The California Club and all the country clubs have adopted the game which is played with cunning little tiles of ivory and bamboo-shaped like dominoes…” Weekly or sometimes daily listings show women’s clubs and society parties featuring the game. The paper describes women who called the game poetic, mysterious, and of the old world. Society matrons flocked to the game everywhere, including Mrs. Herbert Hoover and Mrs. William Gibbs McAdoo, who became honorary members of the Mah Jongg Association of America.
The Bisbee Daily Review on October 4, 1922 notes that mah jongg, or what they call “Chow Pung,” is “China’s latest come-on game,” obtaining its name from the click clack of the tiles on the table as they are turned to and fro and from players yelling the phrase when they match up tiles. They note the game is also called “sparrows,” or the “game of a 1000 intelligences.” The November 5 Los Angeles Times reported that the game originated in China centuries ago, “in the days of Confucius,” originating around Ninguo or Canton.
The article went on to explain the game, noting that the Chinese version of dominoes builds a wall like the Great Wall of China among the four players whose “dizzy and delicious” conversation consisted of a series of code or slang. The game consisted of 136 tiles, with 34 kinds of pieces and four of a kind in a set, consisting of three suits – dots, characters, and bamboo – 27 kinds, four winds, and special pieces called “Red Dragon,” “Green Dragon,” and “White Dragon.” Four people playing individually made up a table, racking up points, in a game similar to rummy and concentration.
Mah jongg in “Pictured Life for Home, School and Community.”
Sets were popular gift and novelty items for Christmas, ranging in price from $10-$400 in Los Angeles, made of either celluloid or ivory and stored in lovely carved Oriental wooden boxes, something that would make the “almond-eyed” inventor proud. “The salesmen whom we talk with, assured us that mah jongg is here to stay, because it furnishes real amusement whether a fellow has his last two-bits wagered on the game, or not. That is an item worthy of consideration in this day of persistent landlords, high-priced hootch – buy why elaborate? – you all know where the shekels go.”
Gimbels’ ads in New York City papers list sets ranging from $16 to $75, still expensive for middle class tastes.
High society matrons often adorned themselves in Chinese robes and dresses while they played the game, and at some of their charity events, hired actual Chinese young women attired in native dress to instruct players, many of which found the game more exciting, more exotic than stodgy bridge. The New York Evening World called it “society’s latest fad” as early as December 18, 1922. “Are these cryptic conjurations, these syllables, strange enough to be the password to some Oriental variant of the KKK, echoing through your apartment or suburban bungalow, these long winter evenings?”
Young J. P. Babcock, the man considered the father of American mah jongg, spoke to the Los Angeles Times on October 25, 1923, explaining how he had spent 10 years in China in merchandising, where he learned to speak several dialects and played Chinese games. In 1919 he decided to introduce the adapted game to the United States, though he considered it “no more Chinese than chop suey.” He adapted the game called ma chiao in Mandarin into mah jongg, and simplified it for Americans, considering it too complicated to explain. Babcock described how he pulled the terms out of the air like a Chinese breeze because of their mystical sound. Mostly children in Shanghai carved the beautiful ivory and bamboo sets.
“I had an idea to commercialize the game for sale as a novelty in the United States, but heavens, I had no idea of the accessories that Americans would think up.” He had copyrighted the phrase, so shared in profits for sets sold, candy, clothes, and the like. His book explaining the rules quickly became the bible to simplifying the game. The paper reported that almost $850,000 worth of sets had been sold in just the first nine months of 1923.
Chinese students at USC quickly responded, upset that Babcock claimed the game did not originate in China. They retorted in the November 2, 1923 Times that their families had played the game for centuries.
Popular culture soon took the word to heart. The song “Mah Jongg Blues,” which Variety called “an indigo fox-trot flavored with Oriental paprika” soared to the top of the charts. A musical named “Miss Mah Jongg” premiered in May 1924. Radio stations offered shows giving mah jongg lessons, even an opera called “Mah Jongg” debuted. Department stores created living window displays with shapely young women playing the game, from Seattle to Los Angeles to Philadelphia.
Billy Rose and Con Conrad arrived a little late at the party, writing “Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong” for Eddie Cantor to sing in Florenz Ziegfeld’s extravaganza, “Kid Boots,” printed as sheet music in 1924. Oblivious to how insulting some of the language was, the refrain began, “Since Ma Is playing Mah Jong, Pa wants all the “Chinks” hung.” Another line stated, “Ma left dishes in the sink Pa went out and killed a “chink.”
Celebrities joined in on the game craze, with many articles in entertainment magazines reporting that stars like Bessie Love, Anna Q. Nilsson, Conrad Nagel, Monte Blue, Cullen Landis, Douglas McLean, and Raymond Hatton played, or that a woman’s club consisting of stars like Mildred Davis, Bebe Daniels, Anita Stewart, and the like played the game when they all met together. Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Thelma Hill was pictured wearing a mah jongg bathing suit in one fashion session, while Helene Chadwick more mah jongg hosiery in another. Some stories claimed that Anna May Wong was an excellent mah jongg player, giving lessons and winning often in games.
The motion picture industry began featuring the game in shorts and features as well. The film “The Masquerader” arranged an advertising tie-in with a San Francisco department store, with ushers wearing Chinese robes provided by the store and the window display prominently featuring the movie and game. The Elliott Dexter and Mildred Harris 1923 feature, “Why Men Love,” featured a scene with mah jongg played at a society event while the orchestra dressed in Chinese costume provided musical accompaniment. A December 1, 1923 Kinogram short showed a Chinese expert demonstrating the game.
Priscilla Dean plays mah jongg in “Drifting, according to “Picture Play Magazine.”
Universal created a two-reel comedy in March 1924 called “That Oriental Game,” featuring Pal the Dog and Harry Sweet playing the game, dressed in colorful Chinese robes and hats. Fox Sunshine Comedies produced a short showing chimpanzees playing the game, with a photo featured in Photoplay magazine.
In May 1924, Arrow Distribution Company released “The Mysteries of Mah Jongg,” a two-reel comedy explaining how to play the game in a humorous way, showing a couple throwing a party where the game was played. Exhibitors Trade Review called it a “new and pleasant form of the yellow peril” in their praiseworthy review.
Selznick Distribution Corporation produced a two reel short in mid-August 1924, featuring photo enlargements and diagrams explaining how to play the game, which was also distributed for private instruction and lessons. Variety thought it a “rather novel two-reel subject.” It came as the fad was dying, with a trade remarking that it was “clapped off the screen by annoyed audiences… .”
Harry Sweet and Pal the Dog play mah jongg, “Exhibitors Herald,” March 15, 1924.
Optometrists reported “Mah Jongg Eye” in early January 1924, with Dr. D. Holzberg of San Francisco stating that obsessive staring at the tiles were causing eye problems, and calling the game “a polite sort of craps.” Some members of the California State Association of Optometrists created special eyeglasses to solve the problem, while others suggested turning the tiles over and discarding.
By late 1924-early 1925 the fad plummeted, replaced by other exciting new games and dances. The game was revived in the 1930s, becoming popular with Jewish women, who organized American mah jongg with slightly different rules, later creating the National Mah Jongg League in 1937 to govern it. The movies “Cocoon” and “Driving Miss Daisy” featured old characters playing the game, which has revived in recent years, with tournaments and even cruises springing up for fans of the game.
It took decades, however, for American attitudes to alter and adapt toward Chinese Americans, allowing them to become citizens, intermarry, and own property. Only in the last twenty years or so has California recognized the important contribution of Chinese Americans to the growth and development of the state. As attitudes change, perhaps Americans can look back at how far attitudes and beliefs have evolved, and continue to make progress in viewing all races in the same vein.