'Joy Luck' proves lucky for mah-jongg

November 10, 1993|By Alan Patureau | Alan Patureau,Cox News Service

Clinking and banging exotic little tiles on a back-room table, four Chinese men and women are playing a spirited game of mah-jongg.

Stanley So wins a hand, shouting with glee as he rakes in blue and yellow chips. The action reminds you of gin rummy, but the 144 "cards" are like bone dominoes with colorful faces of bamboo trees, circles and Chinese characters. Players match "suits" and numbers on the tiles.

Mah-jongg (it means sparrow, a Chinese good-luck bird) is played daily in many eateries, homes and community centers, especially among older Chinese-American and Jewish people.

The mah-jongg scene in the film "The Joy Luck Club" is whetting broader interest in the 2,500-year-old game -- just as "Driving Miss Daisy" did four years ago when four Jewish matrons were featured playing mah-jongg.

The object of the game, similar to gin rummy, is to obtain sets of tiles or cards.

In "The Joy Luck Club," one of the women notes: "Chinese mah-jongg very tricky. Jewish mah-jongg not the same."

But the National Mah-Jongg League in New York disagrees. "The Chinese game is different, because their rules never change," says league president Ruth Unger. "In the United States -- it's not a Jewish game -- we send 150,000 members a card every year announcing the 55 winning hands they can use that year." The American version has added eight wild cards.

Mah-jongg erupted as a parlor fad in the 1920s when an American resident of Shanghai copyrighted and introduced the game to the United States. In 1937, the National Mah-Jongg League was founded to govern play and stage occasional tournaments. Popularity waned after World War II.

"We lost one generation of players," says Ms. Unger. "But now I see a tremendous revival of interest among young professionals and couples -- they do their bonding with mah-jongg."

To learn mah-jongg, send $4.50 for a copy of "Mah-Jongg Made Easy," published by the National Mah-Jongg League, 250 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10107.

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