Mahjong, Memory & Hidden Histories


During a recent conversation with a knowledgeable and helpful librarian, he asked me if I had looked for archives specific to my topic. My dissertation is on the history of the Chinese game mahjong in the United States – sadly, there are certainly no archives for my topic. I believe, however, that not every important story exists in an archive. The nature of my research has been akin to panning for gold across hundreds of far-flung streams, rather than mining one or two mother lodes.

Outside of Chinatown, the strongest associations of mahjong in America are with Jewish American women. How did a Chinese game become Jewish? No one has yet answered this question. Mahjong is embedded in daily life and its traces are especially vulnerable to erasure as a quotidian activity associated with women, so oral histories are key sources for understanding the game’s history. Following numerous hook-and-crook methods, I tracked down twelve people in New York City to interview over ten days. The interviews took me all over four boroughs and Long Island, so I needed to virtually memorize the transit maps before going – I had no time to spare once there and (scrimping as I was) I was crashing on couches in Brooklyn, East Harlem, and Jersey City.

During my first week in New York I planned to visit a friend’s grandmother’s friend (hook-and-crook methods!) in White Plains, north of the Bronx. As I put it all together and calculated the train time and cost, I realized I was making quite an investment in a single interview. As the trees flowed past the train window, I told myself that it was always worthwhile to meet in person — especially in the informant’s home — given the ambient knowledge gained from seeing their surroundings, the recording capability, and the possibility of a more complete life story. Plus, out of respect for the interview subject, one doesn’t cancel interview arrangements lightly. Upon arrival, Hilda greeted me with warmth tinged with the bemused suspicion I had met many times before. From others it usually began with the same question heavily laden with a New York accent: “Who are you?’ Hilda already knew who I was, but she was still befuddled by why on earth I would be going out of my way to interview her (of all people!) about such a wacky topic as mahjong: “Why, you’re not even Jewish!” I have probably been called crazy by at least half my interview subjects. A little friendly teasing is probably a good sign, I tell myself.

My trip to White Plains began with one informant and ended with five. As I spoke with Hilda, her apartment became a revolving door for friends and neighbors in the same complex who also had memories and stories of mahjong. A conversation about buying sets in the 1950s led one neighbor to exclaim, “Seymour made mahjong sets! Maybe he’s around.” Hilda moved to the kitchen to call another friend down the hall, who then knocked on Seymour’s door. Thirty minutes later, Seymour and his wife Edith appeared and proceeded to describe in detail their business, Empire Games. Their tiny factory of games, poker chips, and dominoes operated out of a loft on the edge of Manhattan’s SoHo district immediately after World War II. Seymour’s mind had started to fray around the edges of recent history, but the 1940s had only become clearer and more present. He explained his circuitous sales routes, the shady underworld of gambling products and dangerous customers, remembering the exact addresses of machine-parts suppliers and department stores. Edith described how she came to the factory in the evenings, after her secretarial job, to hand-paint the colors onto the machine-engraved plastic tiles and design their catalogs. After only a few years, their shoestring business ended when a factory fire left their plastic fused into a giant ball. The insurance representative, Seymour explained, refused to compensate their losses because the plastic material still technically existed.

Seymour and Edith described a lost Manhattan landscape of small-scale manufacturing. Not all the details of their fascinating story will find a home in my academic writing, but their memories provided key information regarding the structures of postwar production and distribution, about gendered labor and family businesses, and about formerly commonplace industries whose records are literally impossible to find. Feminist scholars have long established the importance of oral histories for marginalized groups, for catching the stories of those unlikely to be cataloged in archives. In addition to issues of social justice and neglected groups, oral history is also necessary for projects like mine that seek to grab hold of and make meaning from everyday artifacts and rituals. Despite the time and frequent misadventures involved in tracking down informational alluvial streams, oral histories and personal communication provide essential grounding for our ephemeral history.

Annelise Heinz
PhD Candidate
Department of History
Stanford University


Image: Photograph by the author.

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  1. Very nice ode to oral histories! I look forward to the answer to the question of how a Chinese game became Jewish.

  2. I love the way life leads from one unexpected moment to the next surprise. You have captured the magic of life here. Our stories may not be in the books, but they lie in the hearts of many and even the “find” of a couple that produced Mah Jongg sets is a little miracle in the journey.

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