A Dallas-Based Mahjong Line Is Facing National Backlash for Cultural Appropriation

Mahjong Line, a Dallas-based company founded by three white women, has come under fire for redesigning and renaming a traditional Chinese game and failing to properly recognize its cultural significance.

Mahjong was developed during the Chinese Qing Dynasty and spread throughout Asia in the 19th century. The game is ubiquitous in Chinese culture. It is played at family gatherings, among friends, in public parks, and beyond. It’s also popular in the United States, where it’s been widely used since the 1920s. Although the game has spread around the world, most of the mahjong sets look very similar to the original design and feature Chinese characters and symbols such as birds and flowers.

Because of this, the candy-colored versions of The Mahjong Line, which erased almost all Chinese elements to make the game “stylish”, caused a stir.

Kate LaGere, a white woman, and two of her white friends, Annie O’Grady and Bianca Watson, founded The Mahjong Line last November. LaGere learned to play mahjong in 2018 and loved it, but decided the game needed a “respectful refresher” in order to appeal to modern consumers. Their idea of ​​a “refresh” was a complete redesign aimed directly at appealing to millennial women. Each of its tiles is decorated with Arabic, not Chinese, numerals. Traditional symbols have been swapped for “middle of the century”, “cheeky” versions – a bag of flour, for example, stands where there was once a flower. The mats contain slogans such as “Get Your Mahj On” and “Not Your Mamas Mahjong”.

On Monday afternoon, Kathy Khang, a writer and speaker whose work celebrates her identity as an Asian-American, posted a tweet that sparked conversation about the brand. Criticism of The Mahjong Line exploded almost immediately.

What’s happening? Colonizers Annie, Bianca and Kate discovered a new and improved tile game that was once known as Mahjong, but now reflects their individual style and fun. This is a textbook example of #cultural appropriation, so happy 2021 everyone. pic.twitter.com/EYNpwmeRFR

– “It’s allergies, not Covid19, dear Caucasians” (@mskathykhang) January 4, 2021

Asian Americans on Twitter and Instagram have insulted The Mahjong Line’s products, but it was the company’s marketing strategy that really gasped the fire. The Mahjong Lineage’s About Us page has since been changed, but the previous copy read:

“While searching for her first mahjong set, Kate found that the artwork on the traditional tile, while beautiful, was the same – and didn’t reflect the fun they had playing with friends. And nothing reflected their style or personality. “

The Mahjong Line website also said it was hoping to introduce the game to the “classy masses,” which is ironic given the price of $ 325 to $ 425 per set. The color variations are also exclusive and are produced in limited editions so that consumers can “be sure that your entire crew does not have the same tile set”.

The cheeky line in skylight blue from the Mahjong line.

The variations of the Mahjong line, which include Minimalist, Cheeky, and Botanical, are all aimed at hyper-specific consumers. The minimal sets, according to the company, were built for girls who “love a good Eames chair, the smell of coffee shops, unusually long walks on clear days and the pulse of NYC”. The cheeky sets were designed to appeal to girls who “have a wild wallpaper, millennial pink, and [their] lots of sneakers “and who are” equally happy in LA or Austin “. None of these descriptions apply to Chinese culture or cities.

So some white ladies decided to redesign mahjong for WHITE GiRL AEsThEtiC (because traditional Chinese tiles were too boring and didn’t match their zodiac signs) and had the Caucasus to charge $ 425 for terrible design sets that featured the game Make it HARDER ~ a thread ~ pic.twitter.com/sgbINs1XzM

– untitled.ai (@christinacyoung) January 5, 2021

The company argued that it removed the Chinese characters to make the game easier to learn. “For beginners, our minimal designs are most similar to traditional tiles, but we’ve taken care to simplify things that can confuse a new player,” said a statement from The Mahjong Line. “Namely: the unnecessary numbers on flowers, the confusion of the bird bam for a flower, the monochromatic suits that don’t differ enough from each other, etc.”

“Your brain can get messed up the first time you read it,” read a description of the company’s field guides, which work like rule books. “Try again and it won’t feel like any other language.”

Other sections of the website refer to Asian cultures other than Chinese, although it is unclear whether this was an intentional nod to the game’s popularity across the continent. A blog-like section of the website has since been deleted, but the description continues to read, “This is a collection of anecdotes, stories, interviews and a haiku or two.”

TikTok user @DannyPlaysGamez posted a parody video that garnered 266,000 views. He evokes the appropriation of the company by redesigning tic-tac-toe with references to “white culture” like Starbucks, Target and Olive Garden.

@dannyplaysgamez

I am selling these for $ 69.69 by the way !! Spread the word 😤😉👏🏻🤌🏼 # subtleasiantraits #cultural appropriation #whiteculture #racismagainstasians

♬ Monkeys Turning Monkeys – Kevin MacLeod

“[This copy is] cEntering the white rebranding as stylish luxury and the Chinese original as a lack of personality [or] Style. Brands do this all the time. Put others down to sell yourself, ”tweeted Joey Ng, who also wrote an article on LinkedIn explaining why the Mahjong Lineage is problematic and objectionable from a marketing perspective.

Why the copy on #themahjongline is so problematic

To center the white rebranding as a stylish luxury and the Chinese original as a lack of personality of style

Brands do this all the time. Lay others down to sell themselves pic.twitter.com/f8PeAX7boy

– Joey Ng (@joeyng) January 5, 2021

In addition to social media, The Mahjong Line’s cultural appropriation has been criticized by national news outlets such as The Cut, USA Today, NBC, and CBS.

On Tuesday night, The Mahjong Line posted an apology from its Instagram account stating that the company was founded with “pure intentions” and a love of the “American game of mahjong.” The post confirmed that the game’s legacy had not been adequately recognized and apologized for the use of words such as “update”. The Mahjong Lineage plans to continue discussions with “those who can provide further insight into the traditions and roots of the game”. The brand didn’t mention if it consulted with Chinese Americans before launching their products.

Although the post mentions the desire to continue the conversation, comments are disabled. When we contacted the company for an offer, LaGere stated that threatening messages had been sent and that the comments would soon be reactivated.

In her statement to D, LaGere said that the company took full responsibility for the cultural deletion of “accidentally [recreating] An experience that many Asian Americans share. “The Mahjong Lineage will take steps to ensure that Mahjong’s rich history and cultural significance are adequately represented in the advertising and description of the game. However, this would “take some time”.

LaGere added that the company “stands by its products” and is proud to be one of several American companies to offer mahjong sets. She is right. The Mahjong line isn’t the first to develop luxury sets for American gamblers, and theirs is hardly the most expensive. The Tiffany & Co. version that includes the trademark blue is $ 15,000. Hermés offers a version in solid wood and printed calfskin for $ 40,400.

Well-known style blogger Tina Craig, who was born in Taiwan and now lives in North Texas, praised both versions of her Instagram stories earlier this week. Despite their awards, she praised their authenticity and stated that none of the sets were “whitewashed”.

The Mahjong Lineage also provided quotes from two mahjong experts. Marlene Stern, an instructor and tournament judge, notes that there is an “endless variety” of unique mahjong sets on the market and that creating new versions is “great for the game to grow, especially with younger players.”

Gregg Swain, a mahjong historian who previously used the pseudonym Kuan Yin online, also weighed in. She runs the website Mahjong Treasures: Appreciating the Art of Mahjong, a collectors’ guide that educates new players about the development of the game and its artwork. Swain tells us that few players these days understand the complex cultural meanings of traditional tile symbols. “Versions of the game and the tile set itself have been changed to fit different cultures and regions,” she adds. “I am a fan of many [modern versions]Just like I love the original vintage, they all have meanings to their audience. “

Several other companies affiliated with The Mahjong Line have apologized on their Instagram accounts, including O&H Brand Design, who developed the company’s branding and product designs, and Chris Plavidal, a photographer who takes the product images from The Mahjong Line has recorded. (Plavidal also contributes to D Magazine and D Home, which featured the product in print.)

O&H Brand Design “owned and apologized” for its role in creating the Mahjong line. The company seeks opportunities to learn from the North American Asian American community so that they can better understand, respect, and honor them in the future.

“Thank you for a more sincere apology compared to that of your previous client,” said one commenter on O&H Brand Design. “I look forward to actionable changes … Your board of directors presents a predominantly white team. A more diverse company profile would be a good start.”

In the meantime, Plavidal “humbly” apologized for his ignorance and thanked his followers for calling him. On Friday, he hosted a two-hour Zoom meeting to continue the conversation. Attendees included his followers, local and national photographers, and a professor in the Department of Comparative Racial and Ethnic Studies at TCU. The goal, said Plavidal, was “to hear concerns and discuss possible avenues for education [and prevent this] from happen again. “He has donated to relief efforts for Sino-American communities affected by COVID-19 and joined a local chapter of the Chinese American Organization.

“Too many times we’ve seen POC cultures … appropriated and benefited without fully understanding or respecting their origins,” said one commenter on Plavidal’s post, “but there’s always room for growth. I just wish the ladies, who started the company would do the same … open their platforms for comment, dialogue, understand missteps and move forward. “

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