Echoed Entitlement in the #OwnVoices Debacle—and Mahjong?
In my morning scrolling earlier this week, I stumbled across a post in one of my facebook groups, Subtle Asian Traits, which is a community created with intent to “connect Asian individuals globally and create a community that celebrates the similarities and differences within Asian culture and subcultures.” One post had invoked several thousand reactions and comments overnight. I squinted at the screenshots beneath the lengthy caption, which I didn’t bother to read first, only because of the distracting palette of pastel that emerged once I expanded the photo.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at As my vision readjusted in the dim light, my confusion only grew. Was it a set of cards? Harajuku?
To my utter dismay, it was not. It was something far worse, unexpected yet hauntingly familiar, echoing the sentiments of both the controversy and support surrounding the #OwnVoices movement in popular fiction. It turns out, the tradition of playing mahjong is just as safe from appropriation as stories are.
That is to say, perhaps not at all.
A question that might cross the minds of most authors in today’s literary society is, “am I allowed to write this?”, especially when it comes to the deeply personal stories which thread the fabric of marginalised communities: those who, until very recently, have struggled to discover protagonists who look, sound, and think like them, much less get the chance to tell these stories through their own published works. The answer is not so simple as yes or no, nor should it be. The purpose of the #OwnVoices movement is to simply ensure that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), the LGBTQA+ community, and neurodiverse folx have the space and opportunity to introduce characters like themselves in the massive arena of the publishing industry.
In November 2020, Kate LaGere, Annie O’Grady, and Bianca Watson of Dallas, Texas released their own line of Mahjong tiles because they felt the traditional tile artwork was “all the same,” and “did not reflect the fun that was had when playing” with their friends. Apparently, “nothing came close to her style and personality.” These direct quotes come from the original About Us section of their website, which had, as of January 6th, been changed to their issued apology—but we’ll address that later.
LaGere and the others decided that the Chinese tabletop game, first originated in the Qing Dynasty, was lacklustre and therefore long overdue a slumber party makeover. Their redo includes vibrant field guides, branded with “Minimal,” “Cheeky,” and “Botanical” lines drenched in a color scheme akin to an exploded early-2000’s Claire’s eye and lip palette—minus the frost, for now.
With the recent siege upon our nation’s capitol, it’s not likely their encouragement to “Get Your Maj On” has crossed your feed. Still, there’s an alarming parallel to draw: it’s safe to assume even a small portion of the same grandiose entitlement rampant among those delusional enough to run through the halls of Congress with the Confederate flag is, indeed, the very same that drove three white businesswomen to attempt to completely reinvent and upcharge a cornerstone of traditional Chinese family culture.
While a quick hashtag search on Twitter is deeply revealing of many Asian American and traditional mahjong players’ quickfire reactions (surprise: the founders are absolutely ripped), I am happy to elaborate further.
Before we get into ethics, let’s look at the price point.
According to Mahjong Treasures, traditional and most antique mahjong tiles were forged from bone, which is then fitted, or “dovetailed,” into materials ranging from the most common bamboo, to ivory or even horn. Older Mahjong sets, including antiques, can be found with a quick search on Ebay. Bone thickness + type of wood backing + an elaborate case (or lack of) = price of the set, and this stands whether it is used or brand new. Appraisers will examine the art and age; any set of bone tiles is meticulously hand carved, thus making each set one of a kind.
The Mahjong Line’s tiles are made of colored acrylic; tell us, who’s carving this acrylic back there? It sure isn’t Kate.
The price for a higher end acrylic American Mahjong set from Yellow Mountain Imports is $149.98. Or, you can get a perfectly fine acrylic Chinese mahjong set for $36.77 on Amazon US. And for the vast majority of hardcore players who can afford higher prices, the nature of the game itself oozes logic, patience, and tradition. So, if someone is going to spend nearly half a grand on this, what makes anyone believe a hypothetical customer would consider their dazzling pink acrylic tiles over either an antique set, or a custom carved and painted set from China?
Here are some antique prices I pulled:
It gets worse. The sheer audacity it took to disregard traditional colors and textures and charge 200-500% is what dissociates their efforts from anything innocent or well-intended. Their line is the furthest thing from cultural appreciation or diffusion. Rather, it suggests a level of entitlement, lack of empathy, and a lack of ability to preconceive possible ramifications of cultural appropriation.
Then, there’s their brand presentation, starting with its website: a intentional attempt at reflecting their interpretation of Asian-ness in history, from their bolded and shadowed head font reminiscent of old style film posters and postcards (Kurt Russel’s Big Trouble In Little China comes to mind), to a circular logo of a winking woman with flower clips in her hair, while her facial features appear Caucasian.
Next, let’s look at some history.
From its stateside introduction by American businessman Joseph Babcock in the 1920’s, Mahjong parlours in the US brought diverse communities together and were safe spaces for Chinese immigrants, Asian Americans, and even Jewish women in the postwar era to congregate and socialise in Chinatown during a time of strong anti-Asian, anti-other sentiment. Over time, an American way to play was created. According to China Daily, the traditional version utilises a set of 144 tiles, whereas American players have over time added eight joker tiles as well as a set of score cards published annually by the National Mahjongg League.
In contrast, LaGere’s company vividly stumbles across the lines of Orientalism and cultural appropriation. This is not cultural sharing or diffusion, like K-Pop from Korea or anime and manga from Japan. I look at this website, at their prices (perhaps the most upsetting to me), and my ears begin to burn. These founders, among whom not one is Chinese descended, intend to make an enormous profit off of something that’s been around for centuries. They’ve labeled intentional symbols and colors as dull, only to replace them with lightning bolts. Bags of flour. Dragon flies and hot pink palm trees.
Now, let’s talk books.
In American literature, Kathryn Sockett’s The Help and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park—alarmigly both award-winning Adult and Young Adult titles, and NYT Bestsellers—have recently been called out by readers. The first is a book about the experience of Black citizens working in white households in 1960’s Mississippi, and the latter has been deemed a great love story, heralded by a half-Korean male protagonist, who is also the love interest in 1980’s in Omaha, Nebraska. The problem is that the characters in stories like these then become prone to misrepresentation.
Cancel culture aside, these readers genuinely feel these authors have misstepped in their art: the story of a post-Jim Crow era Black housemaid serving a white household written by a white woman, and toxic descriptions of an Asian American boy in the eyes of a white teen, outright echoing terms and stereotypes linked to fetishisation of East Asians. Regardless of the authors’ intent, these are examples of stories containing rhetoric and misrepresentation that are harmful for any young and impressionable audience to absorb.
Ideally, #OwnVoices fiction removes most of the guesswork and research, and in a way limits the “margin of error” because these characters’ stories are true to the author’s own experiences, heritage, and/or orientation. There’s an added depth and level of nuance that would not be present otherwise.
Regarding The Mahjong Line and adding to my confusion, I’m a Hawaii-born Filipino American with Chinese great grandfather, but the last time I even saw anyone play, besides that one scene in Crazy Rich Asians, was over a decade ago. My late grandfather used to play occasionally on game night, and my earliest memories of mahjong were watching my late stepfather’s mother play Mahjong Solitaire online or at the table with our aunties every time we visited them on Hilo. Meanwhile, The Mahjong Line hopes to create a renaissance for younger generations with their so-called modern flair, with no more than a one-sentence nod toward its true origin, instead choosing to focus on praise surrounding an American businessman’s discovery of an exoticised new game from the East.
It’s all utterly embarrassing, this attempt to revolutionise a beloved family game from one of the oldest civilizations in the world, which had already been rebranded as American once it was brought to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.
These are the toxic effects of America’s historic “other”-centric portrayal of the East—namely, taking from eastern culture ala carte style, yet tweaking to make it more palatable for the West.
In a little over a month since its inception, The Mahjong Line has gained scathing attention from all over the world. On January 6th, they issued an apology that has replaced their original About Us page:
Charming, isn’t it? Except, there are no mahjong roots in American culture. There is an American variant of the game, but its roots are not. One would think, with all the press following 2020, including cases of assault on Chinese and Asian citizens in major cities worldwide, that these seemingly educated women would have reconsidered “rethinking what Mahjong looks like.” Conversations surrounding the gentrification and appropriation of cultural practices aren’t always comfortable, but they are necessary. Otherwise, our collective silence contributes to an osmosis and dispersion of culture—a thinning and eventual loss of identity in a society our ancestors were literally pressed to assimilate to in the first place.
Underneath it all, I cannot speak on anyone’s experience but my own. When I think of Mahjong, I think of my papa in his contemplative quiet. Of my step-nana and our aunties, petting our heads from her chair and swiveling every so often to make sure we weren’t getting into too much mischief behind her desk. The satisfying clickity-clack of the tiles, a game I had no interest in learning until recently. The furthest thing that comes to mind is everything the Mahjong Line yearns to represent. They will never represent my grandparents, or their parents and grandparents before them, or my ancestors from Guangzhou. Pink and teal flour bags, lightning bolts, and palm trees have nothing to do with the diverse Americans, the Asian and Jewish immigrants who have adopted variants of this game into their communities during times of war, politics, and racial strife.
Entitlement from inherently colonial mindsets have caused irreparable damage across all continents, leading up to domestic terror upon congress, those who try to silence cries against police brutality and systemic racism, and three college graduates who felt the urge to tie dye some mahjong sets at summer camp and thought they’d creep past the sleeping dragon of Asian Twitter. With an uprising for civil justice and true liberty and justice for all, I find it perplexing in the least to be writing an article on gentrified mahjong tiles. Yet, I am somehow not surprised.
To all the mahjong players out there, with their boring, traditional, possibly passed down sets buzzing with ancestral magic in every tile… to our fellow marginalized authors, editors, bloggers, artists… You are valid. You are seen and heard. Your traditions and stories are palatable just the way they are.
This is so much more than a letter from the angry brown girl, which, quite frankly, I have no problem being. It’s a resolution I’ve made for myself, and I invite you to do this same. This is a call for support for marginalized voices in the literary community. It’s a call to look deeper than “should or can I write this,” a call to approach your own questions from a place of empathy, and accept that you might be taking up space should you choose to move forward in due diligence. It’s a call to listen to marginalized voices when they offer their advice or criticism. It’s a call for publishers and editors alike to push boundaries, take chances, not because of the color of our skin, but because of the nuance and breadth of the ethnic stories we yearn to tell. At the end of the day we are artists, but no, our experiences are not all the same. Is this not what makes what we do so grand?