Mahjong a Game that Still Brings People Together

By James King

The popular Chinese board game, Mahjong, has a special connection to San Francisco. As a city with substantial Chinese-American and Jewish-American populations, the game has been played in neighborhoods throughout the area for decades.

Developed in China, Mahjong became a staple in Jewish communities across the United States. It's history and place in American culture is unique, fascinating and relatively unstudied until recently.

On July 20, Annelise Heinz, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, spoke to a large crowd at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum about Mahjong. She has been researching the game's past and its expansion in the United States.

In support of the museum's current Mahjong exhibit, Heinz delivered a presentation titled, "How a Chinese Game Shaped Modern America." In an auditorium with more than 100 people, Heinz opened the lecture by asking the audience how many people played Mahjong. Hands shot up across the room.

Mahjong is a board game that is played with tiles and requires four players. It is a game of both skill and luck. Heinz described it as rhythmic as it develops patterns over the course of a match.

She also highlighted its communal importance. She became interested in it when she visited China to teach English, and was drawn to the role Mahjong played within the community as a social game.

"I immediately gravitated toward the satisfying feel and sound of the tiles, as well as their beauty," Heinz said.

She also mentioned several misconceptions about Mahjong, most notably, that people tend to believe it is an ancient Chinese game. However, through her research, Heinz has discovered that the game is much younger. It began around Shanghai in the 1870s and grew throughout the remainder of the century in China.

As the country opened to the West, American businessmen and their families visited and lived in cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Locals, expats and visitors learned to play Mahjong and eventually brought it home.

In the early '20s, it was introduced to American audiences and its popularity soared. Through her research, Heinz learned that the activity was seen as exotic and sophisticated at the time. It offered Americans a chance to play something that was foreign and different from what had normally been available. Mahjong sets were manufactured in China and shipped to the United States.

"San Francisco was the major Pacific Coast port at the beginning of the craze, and received most of the shipping traffic from China," Heinz said.

During her lecture, she described how the game spread throughout America in the '20s and then fell out of fashion when the Great Depression hit. However, as years passed, a small minority still played, including Jewish women who used the game to build social groups and fundraise for the American war effort during World War II.

After 1945, when soldiers returned home, middle class families moved to the suburbs. Many women were expected to stay at home while the men worked. Confined, these housewives had little opportunity to branch out and meet new people. However, they found that Mahjong could be a good, socially acceptable way to get away from the house and make new friends. Heinz explained that women often met up to play after dinner on week nights.

Mahjong's popularity waned after the '60s but Heinz explained that it is still played today. There are variations played by Chinese Americans and Jewish Americans throughout the country. She noted that they sometimes play together and the American Mah-Jong Association is trying to standardize the rules for players in the United States.

Heinz also said that the game is currently popular in San Francisco, where it is played "in family association halls in Chinatown, in retirement communities and at synagogues." Heinz highlighted Temple Emanu-El and the Contemporary Jewish Museum as places to play the game in the City.

For more information about Mahjong, visit the Contemporary Jewish Museum's current exhibit at 736 Mission St. The museum's website is at For information about Heinz, go to the website at