Who knew that a simple game could bridge the gap between Chinese and Jewish Americans? According to the Skirball Center’s latest exhibition, Project Mah Jongg, this strangely fascinating game was a hit among Jewish American women in the twenties (when it was first imported from China) and continues to be played with fervor all around the country.
The game inspired a whole mah jongg-themed culture from clothing to household products and all sorts of accoutrements (Thematic aprons and Jell-O molds, anyone?). Mah jongg was apparently so addictive women even took it with them into the pool, as you can see below.
The exhibition only occupies one of the Skirball’s smaller galleries, but the exhibition design by Abbott Miller of Pentagram Design was instantly engaging. Inspired by the colorful imagery of the game, Miller created larger-than-life mah jongg tiles and used them to encase the various exhibition artifacts. Staring at his installation is as much fun as scrutinizing the strange mah jongg tiles and frayed rulebooks of yesteryear.
The intimate exhibition is complemented by four works from artists, who shared their own personal experiences with the game. “I think the most fascinating thing about mah jongg is the juxtaposition of ancient Chinese culture with Jewish-American culture. What a mix!” Artist Bruce McCall writes. His colorful illustration depicted old Chinese men in traditional garb flocking around a modern day living room in Miami Beach, which you can see at the top.
In typical Maira Kalman fashion, Kalman re-imagined the mah jongg tile artwork into an entertaining murder mystery, illustrating her perception of the game as an informal therapy session for the women who played it.
Despite being Chinese, I have never actually played mah jongg. I have always watched in fascination as older women would slyly caress the bottom of the tiles to figure out what hand they had. It seemed like a strange version of poker to me, but “Project Mah Jongg” somehow explained the game’s abiding appeal. If the exhibition text is to be believed, the game lives on because of its exoticism, but most of all for its inherent community building properties. After all, if one is to sit for hours on end with three other people, who couldn’t resist dropping a juicy bit of gossip or two.
“Project Mah Jongg” is on view at the Skirball Center until September 2.