Mah Jong - Chinese Sparrows

Mahjong, also spelled majiang, mah jongg, and numerous other variants, is a game that originated in China. It is commonly played by four players (with some three-player variations found in Korea and Japan). The game and its regional variants are widely played throughout Eastern and South Eastern Asia and have a small following in Western countries. Similar to the Western card game rummy, mahjong is a game of skill, strategy, and calculation and involves a degree of chance. More here

The history of the game is straightforward there is the history until the early 1920s almost exclusively played by Chinese and later as 1920 when discovered and popularized by other nations. 

A set of 144 Mah Jong tiles consists of 36 tiles in the Bamboo suit, 36 in the Circle suit, 36 in the Character suit, 16 Wind tiles, 12 Dragon tiles and 8 bonus tiles (4 Flowers and 4 Seasons).  The best tiles had been made from bamboo and ivory or bone and where beautiful hand-painted.  


Different Mah Jong Tiles

The aim is to collect sets of tiles according to the number and type shown on the face of each tile.  A player takes and discards a tile each turn and the first player whose hand consists entirely of a legal set or sets goes out or goes "Mah Jong".  The game is effectively the same as the card game Rummy.   


Mah Jong is really remarkably simple when reduced to its basics and it is only the accompanying rituals and complex scoring that change this.  One of these rituals, the process of shuffling the tiles at the start of the game, is known as "The twittering of the sparrows", presumably because of the accompanying noise.   

 Mah Jong playing description from 1960

Mah Jong playing description from 1960

Since Mah Jong means "the game of the sparrows" or "Sparrow tiles" in Chinese, it seems likely that this is the source of the game's title. 

Prior to the appearance of Mah Jong, a variety of card games were played in China with at least four types of cards decks.  However, just like Mah Jong the majority were of the set-collecting variety and certain terms from these old card games are also used in Mah Jong.  So, it seems not unreasonable to place Mah Jong as part of a new games of those card plays.

When the West "discovered" the game around 1920 the Mah Jong craze hit much of the world.  Many regions in the Far East play a game akin to the classical Chinese form but in particular, the British, the Americans and the Japanese all grabbed the game and ran with it in their own direction. 

 Mrs. Ho Sau Mei looking at some old images of her craft

Mrs. Ho Sau Mei looking at some old images of her craft

Mrs.  Ho Sau Mei is on of the late producers of hand made sparrow tiles in Hong Kong. She has zero interest in playing mahjong for herself, but has spend a lifetime, day after day in her tiny stall carving sparrows. She was fond of her fathers work and wanted to keep it going. The Mah Jong craftmen shop opened in Hung Hom in 1962. she started to help in producing Mah Jong tiles at an early time in her youth and has done so for many years. To make a set of Mah Jong it takes her about one week to 10 days. 

She invented her own kind of drill to carve turn by-turn ‥ ‥ ‥ different patterns befor applying color on the tiles. Depending on weather the drying needs different time spans. When she applies color and then scrape away the excess color the patterns reveal itself.

The hand made tiles are up to three times as expensive as machine-made Mah Jong tiles, but from time to time someone will find her carved sparrow sets more attracting than the industrial made. 

She is not eager that her children enter the same business and she does not encourage them to join, because the income is not enough to support a family. She has received encouragment from the Hong Kong Government as she is showing old craftmanship which gets rarer every year. Her shop can be found at Hong Kong No. 2 Bulkeley Street, Hung Hom

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