The Mahjong Line debacle is the latest in a long history of Asian erasure

Jason Chu recalls growing up “very American,” surrounded by Legos, Star Wars, and soccer. “The one space where I felt a direct connection to a distinctly Chinese heritage was in my grandma's kitchen,” says Chu, now in his early 30s and living in Los Angeles. It was there that his family would gather during summers and holidays, seated around the table playing mahjong. “Any tie that I have to cultural heritage, any sense of something that’s been given to me by my family, it’s tied up very deeply in those memories.”

Those memories made learning about a Dallas-based company’s offensive take on mahjong that much more hurtful. Kate LaGere, Annie O’Grady, and Bianca Watson, co-founders of the Mahjong Line, had sought to give the game, which dates back to the Qing Dynasty in China, a “respectful refresh," according to the company’s “About Us” page, which now features only an apology, also posted on its Instagram account on Tuesday following intense backlash. They replaced the characters and symbols that adorn traditional tiles with flowers, bubbles, palm trees, and other kitschy images. Many of the photos on their company’s Instagram, removed but immortalized in screenshots, show what look like mostly affluent white women.

Chu and other members of the East and Southeast Asian community Mic interviewed criticize the Mahjong Line sets — which sell upwards of $325 — as the latest incident in a long, painful history of companies whitewashing and profiting from Asian culture without proper credit or compensation.

We saw this last year with white "health coach"-turned-restauranteur Arielle Haspel’s opening of Lucky Lee, a “clean” Chinese restaurant in New York City — in contrast to those that make diners “feel bloated and icky the next day.” This type of "revamp" goes beyond appropriation, as writer MacKenzie Fegan points out in her VICE story on the launch. "I'm personally not opposed to people cooking the food of a culture to which they don’t belong," Fegan says. "I am, however, opposed to labeling the entire cuisine of a sprawling, diverse country as 'unhealthy' and suggesting that the half-million people of Chinese descent living in New York have all been waddling around, bloated and puffy-eyed, waiting for a white wellness savior."

Chu points out the uncomfortable irony of benefiting from a culture without needing to deal with the racism experienced by those who belong to it. “To me it’s just like the kids who were made fun of for eating kimchi or chicken feet or whatever, and then 20 years later they see someone who didn’t have that same experience profiting and commoditizing those items,” Chu says. “It stings, and it’s traumatic because of the history.”

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For East and Southeast Asian community members, mahjong is so much more than a game — it's a symbol of family unity and an integral part of their identity. “We’re talking about legacies here,” says Karlie Wu, 25, of Glasgow. Knowledge of the game, as well as the sets, often gets passed down from generation to generation. Kim Richards, 36, of Bristol, tells Mic about inheriting her grandfather’s set from her mother, who taught her how to play. The game itself also has a deep, rich past, appearing in artwork and proverbs, Wu says. “It holds so much history both for a nation and a culture.”

Josephine Liang, 29, of London, says that if asked to close her eyes and summon a happy childhood memory, it would involve playing mahjong in a practice room for Cantonese opera, which she studied growing up. Along with Cantonese opera and other beautiful, old traditions, mahjong “anchored me to who I am.”

The Mahjong Line’s “refresh” is a classic case of cultural appropriation that strips away this cultural, personal, and emotional significance. While Chu believes there’s nothing wrong with white people enjoying Asian culture — white Americans, including Jewish Americans, have a long history of playing mahjong — it bothers him when, like The Mahjong Line’s co-founders, they position themselves as the arbiters of what’s hip, and what they have to offer as better. "They were coming from a place of disdain," says Jesse Kao, 33, of New York City.

Indeed, the About Us page, before it was updated to include only an apology, explained that the concept of The Mahjong Line stemmed from LaGere’s belief 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.” Kao was outraged by a story on the company in PaperCity that describes how LaGere had searched for a unique mahjong set “she could proudly bring to friends’ homes,” but couldn’t find any, which inspired her to “make her own.”

The Mahjong Line’s FAQ page, also no longer on its site, noted that its redesign makes tiles easier for new players to understand, and deemed certain characters and symbols from traditional tiles “unnecessary” and “confusing.”

But these exist for a reason. Kao notes that the company changed the Chinese character for the number four on one of the tiles to the Chinese character for the word “mouth.” By slightly altering the design, “you completely change the meaning.”

While Kao notes that Tiffany & Co. sells a mahjong set, it still consists of traditional tiles that retain their original meaning. Likewise, there are video game-themed custom mahjong sets, but they also use traditional tiles, again, respecting the game, Richards says. “They haven’t fundamentally changed the whole game, and they haven’t tried to rebrand it as something else.”

In contrast, The Mahjong Line co-founders not only paint their version as a “refresh,” they refer to it as “American mahjong,” which they describe as evolving from Chinese mahjong to become “distinctly American.” But Richards and others Mic interviewed point out that it still has Chinese roots that they erased. What’s more, American mahjong has a problematic history, with marketers associating it with ancient Chinese courts rather than Chinese Americans at a time of heightened anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S., Annelise Heinz, an assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon, told NBC News.

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Liang likens The Mahjong Line to certain culturally appropriative restaurants, where someone “takes a liking to a certain part of the culture and decided they can do it a hundred times better,” she says. “I just think it is almost arrogant. I think you can afford to share some of the spotlight with the people who invented and perfected it, especially in something that is really dying out and doesn’t have the same support system that you might have.”

Industrialization threatens artisans who’ve devoted their whole lives to learning how to make mahjong tiles, she adds, passing their knowledge from one generation to the next. Many fight to maintain their centuries-old craft and traditions amid a history of Chinese products being considered “cheap” and “low quality” and white imitations of them as “beautiful” or “elevated,” Chu says — an ironic, yet perhaps unsurprising, reality.

Some of those Mic interviewed have balked at the price point. Viv Yau, 29, of Manchester, sees it as “a prime example of privileged white people catering to the privileged when the game is, in fact, historically very accessible for working-class East and Southeast Asian people.” While Chu believes premium products warrant a premium price, he wonders where The Mahjong Line’s tiles are being made, by whom, and how they’re being compensated.

Yau and others Mic spoke to remain unsatisfied with the co-founders’ apology. While they admit they neglected “to pay proper homage to the game’s Chinese heritage,” she wants to know how, specifically, they plan to do so. And despite the reassurance that they “are always open to constructive criticism," comments are turned off on the company’s Instagram account as of Thursday, further silencing East and Southeast Asian voices. “It’s a non-apology,” Yau says. Wu adds that O&H Brand Design, the creative agency The Mahjong Line used, also needs to be held accountable. (The agency has issued an apology on its website, as well.)

Chu commends the language in the apology, including how it didn’t stick to the usual “Sorry you took offense” script. But he still sees it following a pattern all too familiar to BIPOC: someone inflicting harm, getting called out, apologizing, then returning to business as usual. He, too, cares more about what actions the co-founders will take. Time will tell whether they’ll take true advantage of this opportunity for solidarity and allyship — or just do damage control.

He and Wu believe the co-founders should donate to Chinatowns, which have experienced debilitating downturns since COVID-19 surfaced in China last winter, likely fueled by racism and xenophobia. Since The Mahjong Line appears to be a pet project, not a crucial source of income, Richards believes “they should close the whole business and chuck it into the sea, because it’s offensive, and they’re contributing nothing,” then donate the profits to “relevant charities.” Liang hopes they learn more about the dying artistry of mahjong makers and engage with them, whether by importing their work or consulting them, paying them accordingly.

Mic reached out to The Mahjong Line, requesting the concrete steps it plans to take, and got a fairly nonspecific response from LaGere: “Moving forward, we will continue having conversations with experts closely tied to the game’s origins to ensure its rich history and cultural significance is properly represented in our promotion and description of the game."

In the meantime, healing still needs to happen. “Regardless of your intent, what you’ve done is press on a raw wound that has never been addressed or apologized for,” Chu says when asked what he would say to the co-founders, if he could speak with them directly. “The ways that America has taken and commodified Asian culture without apology or care for Asian people — you didn’t start it, but you’re unwittingly furthering it.”