Tiles of Cardboard
- Published on Thursday, 20 May 2010 06:41
- Written by David Bresnick
NEW YORK - “Project Mah Jongg” is a special exhibition now on display in New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. Sponsored by the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL, henceforth), the exhibit focuses on the history of Mah Jongg in America and its role as a popular Jewish-American pastime.Mahjong News asked David Bresnick, president of the New York based US Professional Mahjong League to take a look. He did so, together with his USPMJL friend Charlyn Gee.
Physically, Project Mah Jongg is a very impressive display. Upon entering the museum’s Rotunda Gallery, a 1000-square-foot-hexagonal room, one is immediately surrounded with artifacts galore - vintage photographs, Mah Jongg inspired artwork, historical sets of tiles and even a designed “soundscape” of clacking tiles and the voices of happy women at play.
Brought to the United States in the 1920s, Mah Jongg flourished in a time when imports from Asia were all the rage. Credit for the original rules is most often given to Joseph Babcock, an American businessman who discovered the game while in China and modified the rules to make them more appealing to Americans. By 1937, the game was so popular that a group of Jewish women established the NMJL in order to standardize rules and advocate play. The result was what is now referred to as American Mah Jongg. At the first meeting of the NMJL, 200 players attended; today the organization boasts more than 400,000 members.
Fellow USPML member Charlyn Gee had this to say about the display:
“I thought it was interesting to see the evolution of tiles from the 1920's until today. The earliest tiles on display were made of thin cardboard! There were several examples of retro-looking Bakelite tiles as well. Only much later did the modern plastic standard-size tiles become the norm.
"Additionally, I was surprised to find that I really appreciated the Mah Jongg inspired artwork. The exhibition designer had invited several artists, illustrators, and designers - including the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi - to interpret the theme of Mah Jongg. Some of the artists don't even play Mah Jongg! So I felt apprehensive about this part of the exhibit before I went. However, while I was there, I realized that I liked all of the interpretations. Those that weren't familiar with playing the game seemed to draw their inspiration from the visual symbols of the tiles themselves. I especially loved Christoph Niemann's tile iconography with a Jewish theme - his illustrations included a tile with a menorah composed of the sticks from the sou suit (bamboo suit), a tile showing 1 pin (1 dot) re-purposed as a yarmulke, and a 3 pin (3 dot) tile that looked like three delicious bagels.”
The Mah-Jongg Essence
In the center of the Rotunda is perhaps the most simple yet striking element of the exhibit. A simple table with four chairs, racks, the 2010 NMJL card and a set of tiles. Guests are encouraged to sit and play a game as they pass through. In my own time there, several groups of guests sat down to play a hand or two, becoming part of the exhibit themselves. Seeing people playing, witnessing the experience of community and fellowship shared through this game, is truly the essence of what the exhibit designers were trying to convey to their guests. The artifacts, literature and art provide knowledge and enlightenment, but it is this simple table that steals the show. The wealth of history presented is given both power and meaning by this display of continuity – Mah Jongg is not a game of the past, but a living pastime that is alive and well to this day.
More about the exhibition on the website of the Museum
Project Mah Jongg will be on view from May 4, 2010 through January 2, 2011 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust located at 36 Battery Place in Lower Manhattan.
Sun, Mon, Tue, Thur 10 A.M. to 5:45 P.M.
Wed 10 A.M. to 8 P.M. Fri 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. DST
Fri 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. EST
$12 adults, $10 seniors, $7 students. Members and children 12 and younger are admitted free.
Museum admission is free Wed 4 P.M. to 8 P.M.