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Company selling 'refreshed' Mahjong sets apologizes following criticism

The white founders of The Mahjong Line are apologizing after their redesigned mahjong tiles triggered backlash for appropriating Chinese culture.
/ Source: TMRW

A Dallas-based company, The Mahjong Line, which recently released several collections of redesigned mahjong tiles is apologizing after social media users accused the company of cultural appropriation. Mahjong is an ancient Chinese game that found popularity in the U.S. in the 1920s and has appealed to many different cultures.

The Mahjong Line's updated tiles, which were billed as a "refresh" of existing designs, sell for $325-$425 on the company's website. Some of their tiles replace Chinese mahjong tiles with Chinese characters on them with sayings like "bam" with pictures of bubbles and bags of flour.

Kate LaGere, one of the three white women who own The Mahjong Line, told TMRW in an email that she and her partners meant to appeal to young American players when creating their mahjong tile collections.

"We three have collectively played American mahjong for 25 years and have always admired the strategic components of the game," wrote LaGere. "Our initial goal was to design tiles that could be part of the game’s evolution amongst new and younger audiences. It has become clear that we unintentionally re-created an experience shared by many Asian Americans of cultural erasure without using proper attribution and are working to address these issues."

Many people on Twitter took issue with The Mahjong Line's designs, and called out the company for changing something steeped in cultural tradition.

"My culture is one of the oldest civilizations in the world," posted one Twitter user on Monday. "It is a product of thousands of years of tradition and history. My culture not some cheap coloring book that can be filled-in and be 'made pretty' by the standards of privileged teenyboppers."

Even a Congresswoman chimed in with her point of view.

"Please put the Chinese characters BACK onto the Chinese game," tweeted Rep. Grace Meng of New York on Tuesday. "Don’t change my history and culture to make it more palatable to you."

On Instagram Tuesday, Wong Fu Productions roasted the idea of giving the tiles a "refresh."

In a statement emailed to TMRW and posted on Instagram and Facebook, the founders of The Mahjong Line apologized for what was perceived as disrespect to Chinese culture.

"We launched this company in November of 2020 with pure intentions and a shared love for the game of American mahjong, which carries a rich history here in the United States," wrote the founders. "Our mission is to combine our passion for art and color alongside the fun of the game while appealing to novices and experienced players alike. 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.

"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."

The founders went on to say that they are open to constructive criticism and that they want to learn and grow.

"It's imperative our followers know we never set out to ignore or misrepresent the origins of this game and know there are more conversations to be had and steps to take as we learn and grow," they said. "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."

Not everyone was appeased by the Mahjong Line's apology.

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," posted one commenter on the company's Facebook post with the apology. "Your idea is a complete cultural miss and is extremely upsetting. Please stop selling this product, it's insulting."

Others took issue with what they perceived to be the founders' attempts to hide themselves from the controversy.

"This isn’t a real apology, it’s empty words," said another commenter. "Hiding all signs of 'whiteness' from social media by deleting posts of your founders and people who’ve worked for and on your brand, turning off comments on IG, untagging your photos ... doesn’t sound like you’re very open to have constructive conversations."

LaGere told TMRW, "When we first launched, we received a high volume of enthusiasm from players and fans across the country and overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers," she said. "After the negative comments began, we needed to digest what was happening and soon began a sincere dialogue with others to hear more perspectives. Many people are frustrated over the fact that we turned off our comments on social media, but we did so only after the threatening messages started being sent to our customers and followers. We plan to turn them back on and continue to have productive discussions where all voices can be heard. We know there is more listening and learning to do from our end."

Mahjong is a popular group game that's played around the world while the game's origins date back to China. In the U.S., the game grew in popularity in the 1920s, spurring the creation of the National Mah Jongg League in 1937.Stefan Tomic / Getty Images

Ann M. Israel, who co-authored the book "Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game" told TMRW in an email. "I think this new idea (i.e., the 'soap' tile) is just silly as well as confusing. I prefer to play the game with the tile images that correspond to the NMJL (National Mah Jongg League) card and to the way the game was created. However, if some people are tired of playing with the traditional tiles then that is their decision. I will never grow tired of the incredible images that are in all of my Mah Jongg sets.

"Nevertheless, I do not believe the creators of this controversial set had any nefarious, racist intent. I think they just thought they were being entrepreneurial and clever. I must also say that their pricing on these silly sets is surprising since one can find incredible carved vintage sets for far less money. ... I would hope that a big deal is not made of the images on this silly set and I suspect serious Mah Jongg players will just move on and continue to play and collect the amazing and beautiful — and traditional — Mah Jongg sets."

LaGere said she and the other founders thought that they had been respectful in their rendering of the tiles.

"We consulted with instructors, educated ourselves on what was being offered in the market, what varieties were out there and how we could add to the options in a compelling way, appealing to both new and seasoned players," she said. "We solicited feedback from a broad range of people, but failed to get perspectives from individuals more closely affiliated with the origins of the game. A mistake we now realize of great magnitude.

"We are proud mothers, we are mahjong enthusiasts, we are entrepreneurs, we are imperfect humans learning from our mistakes," said LaGere. "We hope that our response to this and the growth we are committed to doing will speak for itself. "