It’s been 5 years since my paternal grandmother passed on, and nary a day passes by without me having a fleeting thought about how much I miss her. Surprisingly, it was a dream I had the night before about her playing Mahjong with me, that spurred to pen my thoughts about this very Asian game of chance, which combines skill, strategy and luck to a fair degree.

For the uninitiated, Mahjong requires a foursome to start the game, or sometimes just 3 in local Singapore/Malaysian variations. The local game involves using 156 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols, including some special tiles that have flowers and little animals carved onto them. In ancient China, these tiles were carved on bamboo, and some of the wealthier families will have them carved on ivory. To date, these sets with their intricate colors and delicate patterns, are priceless heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. In the modern age, Mahjong tiles now made from plastic and carved by machines. The availability of advanced materials has led to Mahjong sets with all sorts of vibrant colors as backings.

Since the days of old, Mahjong games were social gatherings. A round of Mahjong would mean the wind changing from East, South, West and North, and on average will take about 2 hours or so, maybe longer if the gossips were more tantalizing. Yes, gossips. In the days before the internet and the handphone, Mahjong sessions were a major way in which news, gossip and latest updates on what was going on in the community, will get passed on. Over 2 rounds of Mahjong, much can learnt about whose son was going out with whose daughter, whose kid was top in school, whose husband was monkeying around and of course, whose daughter was eligible for marriage. Prospective sons-in-law were often invited to play a round of Mahjong with mother of the young lady in question, with the matchmaker and also maybe an aunt to complete the foursome. There is an old Chinese saying that goes somewhere along the lines of, ” to see the real character of a person, all you need to do is to play a round of Mahjong with him/her.” This little phrase holds much truth, because you will see plainly see how a person reacts when he  is losing  or when he is leading comfortably, winnings wise. You can also see how a person behaves when things go against him, like when he fails to convert while waiting for a winning tile to be discarded. The last bit is also known as to be ‘calling’. A prospective son in law who knows how to curry flavor, can also discard favorable cards for his future in laws. This sort of behavior denotes someone who knows how to sacrifice small personal gains for the prospect of future good. The list goes on, but suffice to say, the game of Mahjong provides a reason for people to interact with each other.

As a young child, I recall sitting on the Mahjong table with my sister, after my dad and his friends had finished playing. We would build walls upon walls of Mahjong tiles, before attempting to remove them tile by tile in our Mahjong version of Jenga (, often spilling tiles all over the floor and getting a right ticking off! If anything, those little games helped in improving the dexterity of my fat little fingers. As I grew older, I would turn the tiles face down and try to decipher the identity of the concealed tile using my right thumb only. This helped in increasing my tactile sensitivity, though to what other good or purpose, is still a mystery to me. Grandma allowed me to ‘hold’ her cards for her when I was 14. She would have her usual foursome or ‘kakis’ come by, and while she went to the kitchen in the evening to cook dinner for everyone, I would play on her behalf. No matter if i played horribly and lost everything, but it was live-firing! No more blanks. Real money was at stake here! From those impromptu ‘second half substitutions’, I learnt how to how to read the game, how to guess what tiles the opponents needed, and also to balance risk-reward percentages from the discarding of a single tile. To be honest, Grandma was not a great Mahjong player. She was always too busy making sure the guests had enough to eat and drink, than to concentrate on her tiles. But she was never bothered by how much she she won or lost, considering that the stakes that we played in were really small. All she wanted was to spend time with her family and friends. I remembered when I asked her, how much she lost after one game, and she replied, ” I lost 2 red tigers today.” Our secret code between grandma and grandson was one red tiger = ten dollars, red being the colour of the ten dollar Singapore note.  She was really endearing, my granny. Man, how I miss her. 🙂

My dad has long since given playing Mahjong on a regular basis. Too time-consuming, he says. I can’t blame him. With the kids growing up, and demanding more and more of my time, I find it hard to balance work, playing dad, golf, and photography. Let along even contemplate playing mahjong regularly. After all, we all only have 24 hours a day. As a ritual, 2 good buddies of mine, TSW and WCY,  who go back all the way to Secondary 1, make it a point to get together every Chinese New Year (CNY), for a game of Mahjong. And that is the only scheduled Mahjong game I have all year. Here, we catch up on family, work, and of course the latest gossip involving mutual friends. During the last CNY game, WCY made a poignant remark which struck home. If we were to live till 80, that means that we would have only 34 games left between the 3 of us. Provided, of course we retain the soundness of mind to keep playing. (Note to self, better spend more time with friends and family.)

Perhaps in this age of XBOX consoles, smartphones and tablet PC’s, not many of the younger generation are learning how to play the game of Mahjong anymore. In fact, none of my kids are remotely interested in the game. A sign of things to come, where children no longer interact much with each other, but prefer to improve their KD ratio and blow up their mates/enemies in COD4. Whatever it is, I am looking forward to the next Chinese New Year and my next game of Mahjong.