May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month, a time set aside in the United States to appreciate Asian culture. Along with their contributions to finance, electronics, and the building of America's transcontinental railroad, Asians in the late 1800s introduced Americans to a competitive tile game called Mah Jong. Today, Mah Jong is still played by native Chinese and enjoyed by Jewish women of a certain age.
It is barely 9:30 in the morning, but every one of the fifty-odd card tables at the Brooklyn Chinese Senior-Citizen Center is covered with rectangular white Mah Jong tiles, 144 of them to a table. Each tile bears a number and the symbol of its suit: Dragon, Wind, Bamboo, Circle, or Word, plus four bonus tiles called Flower or Season.
At each table, four players energetically, carefully, cheerfully, scan the tiles they have been dealt. They take rapid-fire turns scooping up new tiles, discarding others, and hoping to achieve a pattern or series of tiles that will win the round of play or hand, and maybe a little pocket change besides.
Mr. Chen is a volunteer at the Center and my translator today. He says he's glad these old people are here playing together and not at home alone with their TV sets and their memories.
Chen: "When they play Mah Jong, they all look happy. They make a little excitement. It's good for exercise too. When they shuffle their hands, you know everybody is happy. You can feel it right?"
Phillips: "It's really good for health?"
The game is energetic because of the vigorous circular sweeping motion players use to mix the tiles on the tabletop between games. In Chinese, the special clicking sound they make is lyrically called the twittering of the sparrows.
The Chinese are thought to have invented Mah Jong in the 1880s, and not in the ancient days of Confucius, as some have said. Still, Mr. Chen says that the game has had important traditional uses, by prospective fathers-in-law, for example. "When people play Mah Jong, you can see their characters. Some are really quiet. Some are very excited. Some are very good tempered. Some are very bad," he says. "In old Chinese, people looking for a husband, for a son-in-law, you see [would watch] them play Mah Jong, he can't hide anything because when you play Mah Jong, you can see everything on your face. That's why they play Mah Jong!"
Every year, the National Mah Jong League publishes a card, called a book, that mandates the various patterns of tiles players must strive to assemble in order to win a hand. The original Chinese game, which is less structured, has no book, and thus is thought to enhance mental acuity in one's old age.
There are other differences between Eastern and Western-style Mah Jong. Chinese Mah Jong is played by both men and women. The American version is played almost entirely by women, especially older Jewish women.
When Mitzi Kronenburg and her friends shuffle the tiles during their four-day-a-week games at a fashionable Manhattan health club, no one mentions the twittering of any sparrows.
Ms. Kronenburg's friend, Peggy Kronstadt, sits to the side, munching on nuts. As the so-called bettor in this hand, she hopes to pick the winner and collect half the cash the women have wagered. I ask her if she is familiar with Asian-style Mah Jong.
Kronstadt: "I was in China and it's as different kind of a game entirely. They don't speak at all when they play Mah Jonng. How can I explain it to you? Jewish people like to gambler and I don't think that non-Jewish people like to gamble as much as the Jewish people."
Phillips: "What about the Chinese people?"
Kronstadt: "Chinese people are the biggest gamblers! And I have been playing for maybe 55 years!"
Phillips: "Why? What do you love about it so much?"
Kronstadt: "It's just a nice, interesting game, and you forget about anything that bothers you and just are happy to play it. And it's a challenge. Not everyone is great in it but they think they are! And sometimes there are sore losers in the game and sometimes there are happy winners!"
At $20 or so wagered on every hand, the stakes in this game are higher than pocket change. While her Mah Jong opponents pass the tiles to each other, hoping to make it difficult for them to form a good hand, Harriet Barash says she likes the fact that Mah Jong is played without partners. "I also play canasta, a card game where you have partners. And then you always have to ask 'why'd you do this? Why'd you do that? Your partner is yelling at you 'you're doing the wrong thing.' Here, you are responsible for your mistakes. Of course there is a bettor. And if the person bets on you and if you lose, that's a problem. But that's not the same thing as having a partner. I enjoy it. It keeps you thinking [and] using your head. Which is important at this stage of our lives, I would say. And I think the best part of it is, and I said before, you are on your own," she says.
Phillips: "Many Mah Jong players actually don't have a partner."
Barash: "That is true. I mean, when a woman is alone and she doesn't have a profession and she doesn't go into business, this is something to occupy her time and certainly not to go running around the stores every day and shopping. But it's something where you are with people."
Mitzi Kronenburg has been playing Mah Jong for more than 60 years.
Kronenburg: "My best friend's mother was a teacher and on Friday afternoon after school, they would play Mah Jong. And they taught us how to play Mah Jong. I love Mah Jong. I don't like it today because I'm losing a lot of money. And sometimes it comes to a lot of money! I must have lost about sixty dollars today. You can't win them all. I told my husband that when he died, he had to make sure that there would be enough money for me to play Mah Jong for the rest of my life!"
Phillips: "And what did he say?"
Kronenburg: "He said of course! And a chauffeur! He was a good man."
Indications are strong that Mah Jong will survive and continue to flourish both in the United States among Jewish, Chinese and other ethnic groups despite the availability of television and other diversions. Players say this is because there is something comforting and even wholesome about the game's intellectual challenge, spiced with a bit of financial risk and plenty of good-natured complaining.