A Dallas company called The Mahjong Line has recently come under fire for releasing a line of mahjong sets that critics say “whitewash” Chinese culture.
Mahjong is a traditional Chinese game that dates to the Qing dynasty, which ruled between the mid-1600s and 1912. The game became popular in the early 20th century, and while it’s been westernized through the decades — with an American variant, for one — the 144 tiles that compose the game traditionally contain Chinese characters and symbols.
That is, until a group of white women from Dallas — owners Kate LaGere, Annie O’Grady and Bianca Watson — decided it was time to give the ol' game a new look, a “respectful refresh,” as they put it.
“On a quest to purchase her first Mahjong set, Kate discovered that the artwork of the traditional tiles, while beautiful, was all the same — and did not reflect the fun that was had when playing with her friends. And nothing came close to mirroring her style and personality,” said a statement on the company website, where the sets sell for $325-425.
Their products got excessive attention in the last two days — and not only for its blatantly influencer-y marketing points: “not your mama’s mahjong,” and “for jaunty gals playing a civilized game with a wink.”
The Mahjong Line's “modern makeover” reeked of pumpkin spice; some of their tiles include cutesy drawings of bags of flour with muffins or words like “Bam Bam.” The sets, which are “inspired” by #mood digital collages on display on the company’s Instagram, have names such as “Minimal Gal” and "Cheeky."
what in the fresh hell is this pic.twitter.com/Oyzdp4Gma2— Sam (@samanthacp_) January 4, 2021
The brand was widely criticized as “tone-deaf,” “whitewashed” and having a “white girl aesthetic.”
"Three white women with no respect for chinese culture or the traditional game of mahjong are out here making $325 trendy mahjong sets. in 2021," wrote Twitter user @AlyseWhitney. "Traditional symbols aren’t 'fun' or 'stylish' enough for you. how did this get made??? FIND ANOTHER GAME!"
Now, the owners are not live-love-laughing about the controversy, but apologizing for their cultural appropriation.
After the backlash made national headlines, the company’s “About us” section on the website was changed to a mea culpa.
“While our intent is to inspire and engage with a new generation of American mahjong players, we recognize 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,” part of the statement reads. “We are always 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.”
But some Twitter users are pointing out that the company was clueless from the start. In their website's FAQ section, an entry called “American vs. Chinese Mahjong,” which now appears to have been removed, the company describes the history of mahjong by referencing a book on the game written in the 1920s by American Joseph Babcock. “Over time, the game evolved from the original Chinese version to be distinctly American with the addition of jokers to the game,” the site read.
Paper City praised The Mahjong Line as “playable (and addictive) works of art” in a profile of the owners back in November.
Buzzfeed reported that as a result of the controversy, Chinese-Americans are widely posting their own photos playing mahjong.
Another Dallas company, O&H Brand Design, designed the individual tiles for The Mahjong Line, and also put up a statement on their website.
“We are deeply and sincerely sorry for the role we played in the creation of The Mahjong Line tiles and brand. There was a clear lack of awareness, cultural appreciation and respect on our part during our design process. We own that and apologize for it,” it reads.
O&H says they “must do better, and we are taking steps to educate ourselves so that we do not make these types of mistakes again,” adding that they have terminated their relationship with The Mahjong Line.