Serendipity is defined as "the occurrence or development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way." (Oxford Language) These past two Januarys have offered serendipity. In 2020 it was a neighborhood post, asking for those who would like to practice their French language speaking in an informal setting. This led to weekly gatherings with two neighbors and Cecile, recently arrived from France with her family for her husband's Oregon post. She was eager to practice her English as well as to speak her native tongue. Frequently, Cecile would arrive with homemade brioche. Warm memories of those Fridays, the friendships persist. Sadly, Covid and lockdown ended our gatherings and Cecile and family returned to France in June.
January 2021 found me amid the Covid social limitations most are experiencing with one exception, a weekly gathering with five seniors newly alone. Initially, we met in driveways or public parks, following CDC guidelines. With the advent of winter weather, we have ventured to heated outdoor spaces or our homes. It was during one of these afternoons that Barb asked if we might like to learn Mah-Jongg. Ideally, one needs four people to play Mah-Jongg and we were exactly that number who hoped to learn this game. Our sole familiarity with Mah-Jongg was seeing it played in Asian movie scenes.
Gathering on a recent Friday afternoon, we were initially treated to a brief history of the game by Barb: According to many historians, Mah-Jongg is thought to have originated in China during the Ch'ing Dynasty (mid 1600s.) Research by Martin Palmer of Manchester Metropolitan University indicates that it began as a card game (derived from a far older game) played by Cantonese fishermen. When battling the wind, the players placed bamboo sticks on the cards to prevent their blowing away.
Eventually, these were replaced by blocks of wood and then by engraved bone (ivory) on bamboo tiles. (Less expensive versions of plain wood or plastic later became available.)
Internationally, there are several versions of Mah-Jongg: The Chinese, American, English and Japanese.
In 1919, Joseph P. Babcock, at that time the Soochow representative for Standard Oil Company, began supplying Mah-Jongg sets to the United States with the help of friend, A.R Hagar of Shanghai.
Although the Chinese have no rule book since they learn the game as children, Babcock felt the need to standardize the game and its rules. He termed this Americanized version, Mah-Jongg. In 1920 the English numbers for the tiles were introduced and the first edition of Babock's Rules for Mah-Jongg published. Barb's book, a second edition published in 1923, is a fascinating step into history and culture with its refined diction and precise instructions for the simple beginner or the player dealing with hands such as "the nine gates," "the thirteen orphans," or "the seven twins."
Step back in time as you read the publisher's note:
"Each set of tiles is the individual handicraft of Chinese ivory-carvers….
It is not possible to duplicate a lost tile. The extra White Tiles match the others in size exactly, if you lose a tile, send an extra white tile … to the MAH-JONGG Company of China, Chinese PO Box No. 1, Shanghai with letter stating which tile is lost and the design will be engraved upon the White Tile you send and returned to you … without charge. If you enclose twenty cents return postage in American stamps, it will be appreciated."
History lesson completed, we four entered our "immersion" learning session. 136 tiles stared up at us plus dice and an object known as "Mingg" with its various tops indicating directional winds.
Initially overwhelmed by foreign labels and Confucian rules, we soon began to build and break tile walls, playing the game under Barb's tutelage. Labeling of bamboo, circle, and character tiles became increasingly confident and by late afternoon, a few "pongs" and "chows" were even heard.
Intermittently Barb would share the history of her antique Mah-Jongg sets with their intricate keys.
Three hours flew. Ah, serendipity!
Josie Seymour is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center's Jottings group.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.