POV is a recurring first-person column wherein Complex employees have the opportunity to express their unique perspectives on an array of topics. In this column, Shirley Lim (Executive Assistant/Social Media Coordinator with First We Feast) addresses the controversy surrounding The Mahjong Line.
The Mahjong Line, a Dallas-based company owned by three white women, began its “About Us’’ page with a story of one of the founders: Kate went on a quest to find her “perfect” mahjong set, only to discover that “the artwork of the traditional tiles, while beautiful, was all the same—and did not reflect the fun that was had when playing with her friends.” She decided that mahjong, a traditional tile-based game that originated in China sometime in the mid- or late-1800s, “needed a respectful refresh.” (The company has since changed its “About Us” page.)
The company’s website opens to a shop selling expensive American-style sets, and its FAQ section once featured an explainer titled “American vs. Chinese Mahjong.” In this section, the founders discussed a time “when an American businessman returned from working overseas in China” and “brought the game with him” back to America. How very American of him.
Fast-forward to 2021, and this obscure American brand has suddenly come under storm. In January, Twitter was aflame with criticism once people caught wind of the whitewashed version of mahjong, followed by multiple articles using “The Mahjong Line” and “cultural appropriation” in the same headline. As an Asian American, it’s always unsettling to see someone exploit our origins as a means of entertainment, co-opting our culture while minimizing our profile amid a surge in hate crimes against us. Naomi Osaka said it best: “The fact that this topic is not very widely covered makes me concerned.” So, in light of the controversy and the lack of coverage anti-Asian racism receives, here’s why appropriating mahjong hurts the Asian and Asian American community.