Three Women Accused Of Whitewashing Mahjong Said They're Sorry For Not Paying Homage To Its Chinese Origins
What began as criticism has now prompted Asian Americans to share stories and images of their family and community playing mahjong together.
Three white founders of a Dallas-based company called the Mahjong Line are atoning for giving the tiles of the ancient Chinese game a "midcentury modern design" and charging upwards of $425 for their sets.
According to the company's website, which was down at the time of writing, one of its founders, Kate LaGere, set out to give the game a "respectful refresh" because traditional tiles "did not reflect the fun" that she was having while playing.
The website, which also included curated Spotify playlists and personality quizzes about playing mahjong, made very little mention of the game's traditions and origins in China and through East Asia.
After people online accused LaGere and the company's two other founders, Annie O'Grady and Bianca Watson, of cultural appropriation, they released a statement on Tuesday saying they are "deeply sorry" for neglecting to pay homage and for trying to "refresh" mahjong.
"While our intent is to inspire and engage with a new generation of American mahjong players, we recognize our failure to pay proper homage to the game's Chinese heritage," the founders said in an email statement to BuzzFeed News. They then shared the statement on their Instagram page.
LaGere told BuzzFeed News in a follow-up statement that she, O'Grady, and Watson plan on "having conversations with experts closely tied to the game’s origins to ensure its rich history and cultural significance is properly represented" in their product.
Anger and criticism quickly built up against the company this week after people discovered the Mahjong Line products and the language used to promote them on social media.
"Three white women with no respect for chinese culture or the traditional game of mahjong are out here making $325 trendy mahjong sets. in 2021," wrote @AlyseWhitney on Twitter. "Traditional symbols aren’t 'fun' or 'stylish' enough for you. how did this get made??? FIND ANOTHER GAME!"
"I can’t believe i’m watching the gentrification of MAHJONG," said user @SPRlNGBAE.
The game of mahjong dates all the way back to the Qing dynasty, where its popularity disseminated throughout East and Southeast Asia. Different variations were introduced in Europe hundreds of years later. The game is played with 144 tiles that are etched with unique Chinese symbols and designs that players draw and discard to create sets.
The Dallas company's redesign of mahjong tiles into what some called a "white girl aesthetic" — and charging hundreds of dollars for them — was particularly disheartening to the Asian American community.
The Mahjong Line gave some of its western redesign sets names like "Minimal Gal" and "Skylight Blue Cheeky Gal." Its Instagram page, which remains up but with comments turned off, touted its mahjong sets as "incredibly chic" and with branding hashtags like #townandcountry and #southernliving.
LaGere told BuzzFeed News they turned comments off after receiving "threatening messages" amid the backlash. She assured users that comments will be later be enabled to "continue this dialogue."
"We realize many people are frustrated that we turned our comments off however, this was only done after threatening messages started being sent to our followers and customers," she wrote in an email. "Comments will be back on soon to continue this dialogue and ensure all voices are heard."
When asked about actionable steps LaGere and the other founders are taking following their apology, she said in addition to consulting experts, the company will "roll out new policies ... to further education [sic] ourselves."
"We will continue having conversations with experts closely tied to the game’s origins to ensure its rich history and cultural significance is properly represented in our promotion and description of the game," she said in another emailed statement on Wednesday.
Despite the disappointment of the Mahjong Line, Asian Americans online are now using the opportunity to share stories and memories of their families playing mahjong together. It's one of the most common and popular ways that Chinese and other Asian families and friends gather.
This viral tweet showing a modern mahjong table proves you can have innovation while still respecting and preserving the culture. [Writer's personal note: My grandmother in China also recently invested in this table, which makes shuffling and arranging tiles easier.]
Correction: The Mahjong Line’s site was down at the time of writing. A previous version of this post misstated that the founders had taken it down.