Three white American women redesigned mahjong tiles to sell for $425 a set, saying the game needed a 'respectful refresh,' and were accused of erasing Chinese culture
- A company led by white women that repackaged the traditional Chinese game mahjong has come under intense criticism for its redesign.
- The Mahjong Line's website — which sells sets for up to $425 dollars — said the game needed a "respectful refresh."
- Many statements in the company's marketing copy implied the regular version is not sufficient for its customers, who it termed "the stylish masses."
- Social media comments criticizing the product and its presentation as disrespectful to Chinese culture have gained thousands of interactions.
- Mahjong originated in China and is important to Chinese culture.
- New designs and gameplay style have long evolved, but the company showed "real ignorance" in its approach, one historian told NBC News.
- The company's website was not live at time of writing and its leaders issued an apology.
A Dallas-based company making redesigned mahjong sets with "a bit of edge" has apologized following widespread criticism on social media.
The Mahjong Line was accused of cultural appropriation and the erasure of Chinese culture on Twitter after they claimed the game needed a "respectful refresh."
The sets, priced between $325 and $425, were billed as "not your mama's mahjong," add the Arabic numerals widespread in the West, and replaced the traditional symbols with images like bubbles and bags of flour.
None of the three white women who run the company have Chinese heritage, according to CBS News.
Many of the statements in the company's marketing copy suggested that the original game design with Chinese symbols is not suitable for what it termed "the stylish masses."
In a version of the company's About page, one founder Kate LaGere said the game "did not reflect the fun that was had when playing with her friends. And nothing came close to mirroring her style and personality."
Mahjong is a tile-based game developed in China, and layered with cultural significance. Taiwanese-American columnist Jeff Yang explained its resonances in 2018 article analyzing a scene where the game is played in the hit movie "Crazy Rich Asians."
In the US, the game was popularized in the early 20th century among both Chinese-American and other communities.
Posts criticizing the effort have gained thousands of interactions on Twitter, many of which objected to the language in The Mahjong Line's website copy. They also said the company should have consulted with Chinese communities over the product.
—Yuelin Ge (@yuelin_ge) January 5, 2021
—Wong Fu Productions (@wongfupro) January 6, 2021
—叉烧宝bae, 戴王冠的人是个bimbo (@blackadlerqueen) January 5, 2021
Many critics of the company noted that this is far from the first time the original mahjong game has been reworked.
Anneliese Heinz, a historian who has studied the game's crossover into American culture, told NBC News that the game has evolved over time and geography, and that many new designs and play styles have been developed over centuries.
But The Mahjong Line's sets showed "a lack of genuine and actual engagement with Chinese people who are connected to this culture and history," Heinz said.
"What we're seeing here is a real ignorance of this history that remains ignored in American education," she said.
—untitled.ai (@christinacyoung) January 5, 2021
—Jeff Yang (@originalspin) January 5, 2021
"The company, group or person did not respect the original group that they are drawing their product/service/ideology from," wrote student Yuelin Ge in a Twitter post titled "An Open Letter to The Mahjong Line."
"This means that it was not shown in the public or internally that you went through the process of crediting the original culture and showing homage through its designs, that you co-collaborated and that people of that culture gave consent that this was appropriate to do."
The Mahjong Line released a statement to Insider apologizing for "our failure to pay proper homage to the game's Chinese heritage. Using words like "refresh" were hurtful to many and we are deeply sorry."
They said that they had set out "with pure intentions and a shared love for the game of American mahjong."
"American mahjong tiles have evolved for many decades and we'd like to be part of this evolution in the most respectful and authentic way possible," the statement continued.
They added that they are open to constructive criticism and are "continuing to conduct conversations with those who can provide further insight to the game's traditions and roots in both Chinese and American cultures."
LaGere told Insider that the company stands by its products, but said the founders "take full responsibility that in our quest to introduce new tiles we unintentionally recreated an experience shared by many Asian Americans of cultural erasure and are working to correct this mistake."
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