In this interview, mahjong (also known as mah jong) set collector Carol Ann Harper looks at the variety of materials used to make the game’s tiles, boxes, and accessories. Harper debunks some of the myths about mahjong’s origins and explains the extraordinary difficulty of determining who made many of the fine antique Chinese sets. Harper is working on a book for mahjong collectors, which can be viewed at www.charli.org, her website for all things related to the game.
The first time I saw a mahjong set was around 25 or 30 years ago. It was at a garage sale. The intricate and colorful designs on the tiles drew me in and I have been on a quest to find a set just like it ever since.
Researching all the aspects of the game is a passion, and naturally it has enhanced my interest in Asian culture and art. There are still rare thrills for me when I find a set that I have never seen before, and get that adrenaline rush from the urge to have it. But collecting, for me, is all about studying the materials and methods used to create the sets, plus understanding and appreciating the symbolism behind the designs. China is a very old culture so many designs reach a long way back.
My first love has always been bone and bamboo sets. They make up the majority of my personal collection, but like any avid collector I also have favorites and interests in sets of all materials.
After years of answering questions about identifying sets, I started “THE BOOK.” I put it online to help collectors learn more about their sets, and so newcomers could become more familiar with the vintage sets still among us. My collection has grown over the years in an effort to document as many sets as I can and share it with anyone who has access to the Internet. I’ve learned that it is impossible to have one of everything—at some point I am going to have to part with some of my collection to make room for new finds.
Many people who visit my site have encouraged me to publish my book as a hard copy, but I feel it would be too large and that this format is really a better alternative. Eventually I will have it set up so there will be a way to keep it online long after I am gone.
Mahjong sets can be difficult or impossible to research all the way back to their roots in China because the tiles arrived from manufacturers in plain cardboard boxes, which usually were thrown away. Distributors and retailers added all the accessories and then sold the sets as we know them today. Adding to the confusion is the fact that players often traded accessories with their friends.
Tracing them in China is nearly impossible because most of the people from the ’20s or ’30s aren’t around any more, and after several political upheavals in China the documentation has been lost forever.
You can still find vintage bone and bamboo sets in almost every country outside of China, but most of the sets coming out of China these days are terrible reproductions. Collectors need to be aware of this.
There are really two types of vintage bone and bamboo sets—the beautiful, elaborate sets made by master craftsmen and the more common sets mass-produced by kids. I have old pictures of barefoot kids cutting bamboo and shaping the bone to make tiles for the men who carved them.
During the ’20s, cow bones were collected from slaughter houses in the U.S. to be shipped to China to satisfy the demand for mahjong tiles. There was also a demand for exotic materials like ivory and jade. Mahjong comes in many types of materials that include paper cards, wood, and many types of plastics. I have a set made from manmade stone and another from Ebonite, which is faux ebony.
“Early on in China, only upper-class men were allowed to play mahjong.”
One of the best mahjong museums in the world is in Japan. They have beautiful sets on display and they’ve published at least two books with really nice pictures. I think that most of their sets are bone, bamboo, ivory, and jade, but they also have stone sets, cards, and a set with designs made from abalone. I am not sure if they have the hollow tin set though. My secret wish has always been to have a museum where all my sets would have a permanent home, with lots of visitors to appreciate their diversity.
Collectors Weekly: Were mahjong sets always made from so many different materials?
Harper: I think they were originally like playing cards. Next came bone or bamboo, and then plastics took over because they were durable and more easily mass-produced. Other materials were also used to satisfy the need of players for something different. That desire still exists, so today there there are two artisans in the U.S., Dee Gallo and myself, designing sets.
Collectors Weekly: What is the origin of the game?
Harper: Mahjong was born in China. In the early 1900s there was a huge European settlement of mostly diplomats and their wives on the Ning Po River; that is most likely where the game got a good foothold. Many of those people brought the sets back to Europe to share with friends and family.
There is much debate about the which entity introduced this game to the western world. Joseph Babcock gets much of the credit, but I feel that is due to the fact that he sold his copyright to Parker Brothers, which used its great marketing skills to get the word out. I do have documentation from a German company that sent someone to China on a mahjong mission in 1916. There may have been someone there even before that, but I haven’t found proof yet.
Many department stores in the U.S. imported sets, too. Abercrombie & Fitch imported and sold more than 40,000 sets in one 10- year period. I have no idea how many were sold by Macy’s and Gimbels, and what used to be called “five and dime” stores like Robinsons and Woolworths.
Mahjong organizations like the National Mah Jongg League and the American Mah Jong League also sold sets. Distributors like Eastern Distributors in New York sold sets to many retail outlets while companies like Pung Chow and Parker Brothers marketed sets through department stores and national advertising in magazines.
Collectors Weekly: Has mahjong always been played the same way?
Harper: All rule sets are based on the original Asian rules, but there are many variations. Sometimes I think there are more rules than collectors. In the U.S. some rule sets use jokers, and the most prolific joker rule set is from The National Mah Jongg League. They introduced jokers to the game in the mid 1960s. Other rule sets include The American Mahjong League and Wright-Patterson. Then there are “house rules,” which are adaptations of other rules. I learned to play using Wright-Patterson rules, but I prefer Asian rules because the hands are less complicated.
Collectors Weekly: Can you describe your process of making a complete mahjong set from orphans?
Harper: Around the mid-1960s, the National Mah Jongg League introduced jokers to the game. Sets made prior to that didn’t have them. We’ll take a set from that early period and then search through my collection of orphan tiles—orphans come from broken sets; I probably have 20,000 of them—looking for tiles that match. Then we put stickers on the matching tiles to designate them as jokers. That way people can use them to play by the latest National Mah Jongg League rules.
About 10 years ago, an actress wore a mahjong bracelet in a movie, and people went crazy for it. Jewelers everywhere were buying sets and destroying them because they wanted the tiles with flowers and birdies. I stayed busy buying sets to stop them from doing that. Also, if I have a set that needs three or four tiles, I watch auctions for a broken set that has those tiles. That’s how my orphanage got so big.
From trying to fix these sets, I realized there was an enormous variety out there. For example, there must be 2,000 different colors of butterscotch. In the process of trying to put sets back together I discovered that even sets with labels like Royal Depth Control were made in different sizes, colors, and shapes, and out of a variety of materials. Royal made tiles in both Bakelite and Catalin, but many people don’t really understand that they are different things. People use the term Bakelite when they are actually talking about Catalin.
So there can be a lot of variety within one label. If people contact me looking for a tile, I ask them to send me an actual tile to match. There’s too much color variation in photographs, depending on their lighting or whether they used a flash, to match tiles with any certainty from photos alone.
If they don’t put some sort of little sticker on their tile, I’ll put one on for them so I don’t lose it. Then I go through my buckets of orphan tiles, looking for extras to make jokers or replace a tile that’s been lost or destroyed. Of course, I return the original tile in the end.
Collectors Weekly: Do the stickers have symbols on them?
Harper: I design and create thousands of joker stickers. Some are pre-designed but I also do custom work. Since the older sets didn’t come with joker tiles, it is the only way to bring these sets up to date with modern rules. My stickers are at CHarlisStickers.com.
Collectors Weekly: Was there a lot of variety in the game boxes that held the pieces?
Harper: Yes. One of the most popular boxes for bone-and-bamboo sets is a five-drawer rosewood box. You see a lot of those. There were also flat-type travel boxes. There were three-drawer boxes, two-drawer boxes. They had a door that slid down the front to cover up the drawers. I’ve got one that has a Chinese antiquity seal on it that looks like a book. I got that set from someone in Australia. It’s very old and has been used so much that the designs are almost worn off of it. I think that’s probably my oldest set.
The price of bone and bamboo sets was determined by the thickness of the bone—the thicker the bone, the more expensive the set. Very often, the thicker the bone, the more elaborate the box, too. Take Mah Jongg Sales of America sets, for example. Their boxes have two Chinese characters on them which say “Mah Jongg.” That particular spelling and print style was copyright by Babcock in 1924. They used specific tile designs and some of those were also protected by copyright.
If you look at other sets like a Lion set, the box has a lion embossed on the front. This matching was typical of a distributor who wanted to differentiate his set from others by using a consistent design.
Other distinctive designs included a Sparrow with two Chinese characters, a Peacock with two mahjong tiles, a Pagoda, and there are several Dragon sets. Each were from a different company or distributor. When I use the term “label” it’s more like a brand name. One example is Royal Depth Control.
Collectors Weekly: Were the boxes always made out of wood?
Harper: The most common boxes were rosewood with brass trim, but boxes were also made from papier-mâché, tin, leather, and heavy-duty cardboard, which was sometimes covered with silk or a heavy fabric that was coated with paint and called oilcloth. The shapes and designs of the boxes was also varied. The most sought after wood boxes are the ones that are heavily carved or that have a lot of brass on them.
Collectors Weekly: The whole box was carved?
Harper: Yes, the handle, the sides, the front, and the back. Sometimes even the drawers have carving on them. Those boxes and the ones that have a lot of heavy brass on them are very desirable. There are also wood boxes inlaid with mother of pearl. I’m very cautious about those because they can warp. I don’t know what type of wood was used. When manufacturers were mass-producing a lot of rosewood boxes, the wood they used was often green. Once it made the trip across the ocean it shrank and dried. So you get splits in them.
I have a little box with celluloid drawers. I’ve only seen one of those. The tiles are very different, too. They almost feel like hollow plastic. People have put mahjong sets in jewelry boxes, which is pretty neat sometimes. I’ve got about 250 boxes in the bone and bamboo section on my website.
Collectors Weekly: Did sets always come in a box?
Harper: Most vintage sets sold today are in a box, but when they first arrived in this country they were packed in very simple cardboard boxes. That’s when U.S. companies would put the sets into their own distinctive designer boxes. Abercrombie & Fitch placed its own label on sets but also left the original manufacturer’s name intact. I read somewhere that that was their policy.
At least three companies marketed less-expensive wooden sets, which came in simple-to-elaborate cardboard boxes. Some had five trays stacked on top of each other. There are quite a few wooden mahjong sets that were given away as promotional items. Most of those came in cardboard boxes styled after the more expensive rosewood boxes. Insurance companies, a silk company, shipping companies, and newspapers gave these sets away to their preferred customers.
Collectors Weekly: When did the mahjong craze really hit America?
Harper: The first real mahjong craze in America was in the ’20s, but it has gone through several revivals since. For the last 15 years there has been a huge increase in new players and collectors, many looking for nice vintage sets. It is very hard to find really good ones now unless they are coming from collectors. Fifteen years ago you could find good sets in secondhand stores and at flea markets.
Mahjong offers a lot for a game. In this age of instant gratification, the Internet, and smart phones, we have become a very antisocial society. Mahjong offers players a wonderful social experience, with challenges and fun for all ages and both sexes. I think people are really enjoying just getting back to some having fun.
Early on in China, only upper-class men were allowed to play mahjong. The game was often played in mahjong dens or parlors and linked to prostitution and opium. The game’s early history in San Francisco shared the same associations.
Collectors Weekly: How did the choice of tile materials evolve?
Harper: In the beginning, bone and bamboo were favored because of the availability of materials and their durability. When plastics appeared on the scene, they proved to be just as durable, easy to care for and less labor intensive because they could be mass-produced by machines.
Eventually, though, people realized that Bakelite and Catalin were chemically unfriendly, and that French ivory needed special care or it would just disintegrate. But plastics are getting better all the time. As far as other materials go, ivory is scarce and not always legal. Other exotic materials are also becoming hard to find, which makes them more expensive.
Collectors Weekly: Were the dice always made out of the same material as the tiles?
Harper: No. I’ve got brass dice, ivory dice, and all types of plastic dice. I collect miniature dice, too. During the U.S. Civil War, bone dice were common. Original true mahjong dice were a little bit different than the ones you see from the U.S. Civil War era, but bone has been popular for dice for a long time.
Collectors Weekly: How did World War II affect mahjong?
Harper: It affected the designs on some of the tiles. For example, there are political statements and poems on the “flower/season” tiles. Bakelite and Catalin tiles became thinner for a period near the end of the war and shortly thereafter, the most logical reason being that those materials were needed for the war effort.
During the war, military personnel brought sets home to their families, which introduced the game to even more people in the U.S. For example, Wright-Patterson rules are named after Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Indiana.
Collectors Weekly: Do the symbols on mahjong tiles vary from set to set?
Harper: It’s difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t play the game that certain suits are expected to be the same from set to set, but that the designs can vary quite a bit. If you think of a mahjong set as a deck of cards, then maybe it’s a bit easier to understand.
In the Bamboo suit, for example, the #1 tile is most often a bird, but there is more than one bird in the world so there can be more than one design. Flower and Season tiles have traditional flowers and variations as well. Much of this has to do with the artist who created the designs, and if that artist wanted to take a traditional approach or if he or she wanted to make a statement.
Collectors Weekly: Do the American sets use Chinese symbols?
Harper: Yes. All sets that have Arabic numbers were made for export to the West. In Asia, the only suit with numbers is the Character suit. Character suit tiles have the Chinese number and the Chinese symbol for 10,000. The Bamboo suit and Dot suit are designed to show 1, 2, 3, etc. pieces of bamboo or dots. Flower tiles include the Chinese word for that flower and the Season tiles have the Chinese word for the season.
Depending on the age of the set, Wind tiles have the Chinese word for the different directions on them and Dragon tiles can also have Chinese words or symbols. Flowers and Seasons are associated with the Winds when it comes to scoring so it’s important for Westerners to know the numbers or understand the Chinese ideograms. The only exception is the rule set played by the National Mah Jongg League.
Collectors Weekly: Do we know the names of any of the great tile artists?
Harper: The only artists I know of are the two mentioned earlier. I have found nothing about the individual masters of the ’20s, but I think that even if a master designed and carved a set himself, he would have had the same name as the manufacturer.
Much of that kind of information was lost during the Cultural Revolution in China, when pastimes like mahjong were forbidden and factories destroyed. Also keep in mind that many of these tiles were mass-produced by child laborers who would not have been given any credit. Only the company name would have made it into any documentation.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the other really sought-after sets?
Harper: There are always people who want ivory more than anything else. It is very hard to come by and without documentation it’s not legal to sell it or buy it. The only source for these sets is through private collectors. eBay won’t let you sell ivory any more and it cannot be imported. After that I would say the most sought-after sets are Enrobed sets, Two-Tone sets, and Chinese Bakelite sets. Enrobed sets were originally called “Border Tone” because there is a frame around the tile itself. These sets are inching closer to $2,000 every time I see one. Two-Tone sets are nearing half that, and some Chinese Bakelite sets, too.
A friend of mine in the Netherlands sent me some flat bone pieces a few years ago. The Fish and Wildlife Department intercepted the shipment, sent me a registered letter threatening to throw me in jail for importing ivory. Fortunately, they did give me a number to phone them. I did call them and said: “I’m sure those pieces are bone and not ivory.” They said:” Well, even if it’s elephant bone, you’re going to jail.” They did DNA testing on it and eventually returned it to me. It was a terrifying experience.
Collectors Weekly: How many parts or accessories come in a mahjong set?
Harper: You are right to call the extras accessories because they aren’t always necessary. The most common accessories are racks, dice, coins for scoring, banks, and a bettor.
For bone and bamboo sets, bone counting sticks are used instead of coins. Dice often come in a little carved bamboo dice coffin and sometimes there is a little bone Mingg jar with Wind direction disks in it.
All the extras are collectible and some collectors specialize in them. Banks are a very popular collectible. They usually have a Catalin base with four or five posts to hold the coins. Some other must haves are: rule booklets, annual rule cards, dice, the wooden plate, sheet music, magazines with mahjong articles, and old newspaper clippings.
The more accessories that accompany a set, the greater its value.
Collectors Weekly: Do you ever play with your games?
Harper: I play as often as I can, and if I can’t play with my sets I will take them out to look at them. It’s like seeing old friends. My better sets—like a wonderful black jade set—are on display, but you can only display so many at a time. With more than 800 in my personal collection, many must remain in secure storage.
One of my current collecting goals is to gather sets that are in catalogs I have, like the Pung Chow catalog of 1924. Pung Chow and other companies sold sister sets, which are sets sold by the same company in a variety of boxes and quality.
Several manufacturers and distributors sold specific materials, so when you hear their names, a certain type of set comes to mind. Piroxloid was known for French ivory, Pung Chow for Pyralin, and Milton Bradley for wood. A.L. Reed and Mah Jongg Sales of America distributed bone and bamboo sets while Parker Brothers marketed sets in cards and wood. Then there were Met Games and Royal, which sold Bakelite and Catalin sets.
Collectors Weekly: Why are there so many different spellings of mahjong?
Harper: I think that it was due to companies trying to create their own identity, along with language translations and different rule sets. You will see it written as “majong” and “mah jong” most often. As said previously, when it is spelled with two Gs, the set should be associated with Mah Jongg Sales of America.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone new to collecting mahjong?
Harper: Take your time. If you have just learned to play, you are probably very attached to the designs on the set you learned on. Have a look around to see what else is out there. Check out eBay, look at as many sites as you can. Talk to other collectors and then decide what you really like, or what pleases you. As far as games go, this one is pretty expensive, so be prepared to make an investment.
Mahjong is not like some collectibles with lots of clubs and such to use as a resource for collectors, but collectors do share back and forth and seek each other out to discuss all kinds of things. For the most part they are a pretty friendly group when it comes to sharing. I guess that is a loose definition of a club.
(All images courtesy Carol Ann Harper of www.charli.org)