Mah-jongg's adherents start young, keep playing

December 24, 1993|By Lori Moody | Lori Moody,Los Angeles Daily News

Selma Weiss and three other players concentrate on the racks of plastic tiles before them.

Then, the four women take turns picking and discarding the rectangular yellow-and-white mah-jongg tiles on the card table in hopes of collecting a winning combination.

"Five bam," one player calls out, referring to the bamboo symbol on the face of the tile she throws out.

"Green," says another as she gets rid of a dragon tile.

"Eight dot." Seven dot." "Five dot." "Flower."

"Mahj!" announces Ms. Weiss as she reaches for the tile she needs to win. The other players reach for their quarters.

The clicking of small, thick tiles against each other is a familiar sound each Wednesday at the West Valley Jewish Community Center, in the San Fernando Valley community of Canoga Park, Calif. Here, seniors get together to play mah-jongg, a game that has been played in China since about 500 B.C.

It has been a pastime in the United States since the early 1920s and is especially popular among older Chinese-Americans and Jews.

Mah-jongg, which is known in many countries, is played for points in amicable parlor games as well as fierce, high-stakes competition where fortunes are won and lost in a day.

Renewed interest in mah-jongg was generated by the recent film "The Joy Luck Club," based on Amy Tan's book of the same name about four Chinese immigrant women who played weekly mah-jongg games for years, and their American-born daughters.

Jeff Hale, manager of the Game Keeper, located in the San Fernando Valley community of Northridge, says sales of mah-jongg sets have increased since the movie's release, particularly among people who played when they were younger.

"Out of all the games we sell, the only thing I can compare mah-jongg to, as far as fascination, is maybe chess," Mr. Hale says. "People play for years."

Thomas Wang, 74, of Monterey Park, a community east of Los Angeles, learned to play more than three decades ago.

Mah-jongg keeps the mind active, he says.

"It's a fascinating game," says Mr. Wang, a retired vice president with a Taiwan development institute. "I never get tired of it. I try two or three times a week, if possible maybe four times.

"This game requires exercise, discipline and wisdom," he says at one of eight full mah-jongg tables at the Langley Center in Monterey Park. "It takes strategy. It's just like fighting a war."

Those addicted to mah-jongg find it easy to wax philosophical about it.

"It is more than a game," says Ruth Unger, president of the National Mah-Jongg League in New York. "It is hard for a nonplayer to understand and to believe what I'm saying. . . . It is such a small part of the movie, but yet, that is the basis of the friendship. It bonded these families together.

"It is not unusual to find groups that last throughout a lifetime in a neighborhood," says Ms. Unger, 67, who began playing in her 20s.

The nonprofit league, which incorporated in 1937, was formed to standardize and "promote the sociability and love of the game." Membership costs $4.25 a year.

Nancy Tsai and her husband, George, help organize social mah-jongg games at the Langley Center as recreation for elderly Chinese who followed their grown children to the United States.

"The majority of them do not speak English," Mrs. Tsai says. "They do not know how to play bingo, or other games. So my husband thought, well, it's a good idea to organize them so they don't have to stay at home."

Now, some come from an hour away to play.

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