Not Your Grandparents’ Mahjong Table


On a drizzly Saturday afternoon, hundreds of mahjong enthusiasts gathered in Downtown Brooklyn to play the 19th-century Chinese game of strategy and luck.

As attendees entered the Korean food hall Hana House, they spread out over some two dozen tables. Upbeat electronic music from a live D.J. played throughout the space.

The afternoon marked the second birthday of Green Tile Social Club, a New York-based mahjong community that was hosting its first tournament. Four Asian American alumni from the University of Texas at Austin — Ernest Chan, Grace Liu, Joanne Xu and Sarah Teng — started playing together about two years ago, and it grew into the club.

“We created the community that we wanted because it didn’t exist yet,” Ms. Teng said.

Although many young Asian Americans grew up with mahjong at home, the game is frequently associated with watching older generations play rather than participating themselves. Now, the Green Tile community is hoping to rejuvenate the table with a younger crowd.

The group is not alone, and the game is finding a new generation of fans. Baba’s House, a restaurant in Oakland, Calif., has regular mahjong nights, and DFW Mahjong has hosted games across the Dallas area.

Word of Green Tile Social Club spread online, and about two years later, the organization hosts monthly mahjong games at meet-ups, dinner parties and corporate gatherings. The crowd at Hana House included regulars who had been with the club since its inception alongside newcomers experiencing the game for the first time.

As it has grown, the group’s mission has remained the same: to “connect people back to their culture,” said Mr. Chan, one of the organizers.

In the edited interviews below, guests reflected on the appeal of the game.


Tech project manager and community organizer

Why do you love mahjong so much?

I grew up in an area that was predominantly white, and I didn’t really get to tap my roots a lot. So when I started learning this game and learning a lot of the history behind it, I absolutely loved it, and learned about what it means in Chinese culture.

A second thing is my grandma’s Alzheimer’s, so playing mahjong with her helps her brain keep working and keeps her whip sharp. So anytime I go home and visit my family, I always play mahjong with my grandma.

Tell me about your top.

My friends know I play mahjong and they bought it for me; I love opportunities to wear it. Mahjong is hip now versus before. When we were growing up, it wasn’t cool.


Product manager

What do you love about mahjong?

I used to play it a lot when I was growing up with my family. And when I moved to New York, we found the Green Tile Social Club. I used to think that mahjong was only for Asian families, and when I realized there were people around our age that loved playing mahjong, I just hopped in immediately. And I’ve been in love since.

How does the event differ from older generations playing?

I think it’s the nature of how we play. When I played it as a kid, I was playing exclusively with my family. What that meant was my uncle, who’s in his 70s, my parents, who are 20 to 30 years older than me. Whereas here it’s a lot more conversational. Having people in a community where you don’t feel like you’re just hanging out with your parents all the time is a pretty nice environment.

What do you like about mahjong?

I think mahjong is such a strategic game, but at the same time it’s very social — that is the bond. That’s how a lot of people — my parents and grandparents and former generations — bonded.


Sales and artist management for an art gallery

Tell me why you’re spending your Saturday here.

When I first heard about the Green Tile Social Club, it was last year and I had just come back from spending six months back in Singapore, where I really upped my game. Then I found out about this social club.

Since coming to Green Tile Social Club events, I actually started hosting at home. I host twice a month.

What are your events like?

I found out that a lot of people were interested in playing mahjong but they had no one to teach them. They didn’t have some kind of grandparent. They didn’t have an older mentor. So then I started just casually teaching friends. We always do a buffet dinner and an open bar, and people play for like six, nine hours.


Retail operations

How did you start playing mahjong?

I never really played growing up. I learned from my family once, at Thanksgiving three years ago. I was also fresh out of a breakup. So I really pushed myself to find a new community.

Was it healing?

Oh, yeah. I went by myself. One table just kind of welcomed me with open arms and they were like, “You’re alone so just hang out with us.” So I sat down and played.


Cookbook author and creative manager at Pearl River Mart

How did you learn how to play mahjong?

I probably learned just by watching my grandparents play.

It’s very strategic, but yet you have to be alert. There’s a lot of chance because it depends on what you draw.


Project manager

What do you love about mahjong?

It’s a very intricate game, right? There’s strategy, but there’s also an aspect of luck. No matter how strategic you are, if you’re just out of luck, then you’re not going to do well. But that’s what keeps it interesting.


Strategy and operations at a tech company

What do you love about playing mahjong?

When you’re in a setting playing mahjong, there’s a lot less pressure because you’re not staring people in the eyes. And you’re looking at the tiles when you’re still able to open up and talk about what you’re actually feeling.


Mechanical engineer

Why are you spending your Saturday afternoon here?

I actually moved to New York just recently, and I ran into someone that I hadn’t seen in a very long time and he recommended me to come to these events. So he taught me how to play mahjong earlier this week.


Software course designer

What do you like about playing mahjong?

Number one is just nostalgia because I played all the time in my family. I really enjoy the communal aspect, too. I do believe doing things like mahjong, where you’re exercising a lot of positive strategy and you’re always constantly interacting with a network of people that you regularly see, is conducive to living a long, healthy life.



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