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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 3 March 2021

Did these women try to culturally appropriate the Chinese game of Mahjong?

According to many on social media, the answer is yes

A look at the redesigned mahjong set by The Mahjong Line, which features new symbols and colours. Courtesy The Mahjong Line
A look at the redesigned mahjong set by The Mahjong Line, which features new symbols and colours. Courtesy The Mahjong Line

A Dallas-based company is under fire for what many are claiming to be cultural appropriation of the centuries-old Chinese game, mahjong.

Kate LaGere, Annie O’Grady and Bianca Watson, founders of The Mahjong Line which launched in November 2020, have received backlash for giving what they describe as a “respectful refresh” and “modern makeover” to the popular tile game that is steeped in Chinese tradition.

So what is the backlash over?

While giving their own spin on the game, many people were quick to question the redesigned sets as well as the price tag. On their website, they sell mahjong sets ranging in price from $325 to $425, which is about three to five times more than normal sets.

They've also altered the game by getting rid of the familiar symbols often seen on the 144 tiles and adding their own newly designed and colourful ones.

One Twitter user shared her outrage over the redesigned set. "Traditional symbols aren’t 'fun' or 'stylish' enough for you. how did this get made??? FIND ANOTHER GAME!,” she tweeted.

How did The Mahjong Line respond?

After hearing the backlash, the owners blocked comments on their Instagram and responded to the criticism they’re received by creating a new About Us section on their website. They open up by describing the rise of American mahjong and how they wanted to be a part the game's “rich history” in the US.

They also explain that while their “intent is to inspire and engaged with a new generation of American mahjong players,” they recognise their “failure to pay proper homage to the game’s Chinese heritage.”

However, a lot of people just aren’t buying it. Although American mahjong is credited to being created by oil executive Joseph Babcock, who imported the game after seeing it in China in the 1920s, the issue remains: it us still a game that was taken from another culture.

“You can't just repackage something belonging to a culture that isn't yours and act like you started a new cultural phenomenon,” writes another Twitter user.

It remains to be seen what will happen with The Mahjong Line. The trio have promised that there are "more conversations to be had and steps to take as we learn and grow" from this controversy, but it doesn't seem as though the Asian-American community will let them get away from it so easily.

Here are how some Twitter users are responding now:

However, some have also come out in support of The Mahjong Line:


Read more:

Hidden gems: discovering five of Asia's lesser-known attractions

From dreadlocks to kimonos: does fashion have a problem with cultural appropriation?


Published: January 7, 2021 07:25 PM


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