Four men playing mahjong, by Shakar S.
Myths and legends of a secret Mah Jongg House in Sacramento
Demetri Gregorakis lives a block down from a rumored secret Mah Jongg parlour in Sacramento, California. From his porch, he has a birds-eye view of various day-to-day activities.
“As someone who is very social and likes to be involved in the Sacramento scene I’m naturally very curious especially since they’re my neighbors,” Gregorakis says. “I’ve seen people playing games and drinking like it’s a club, but I’ve never been allowed in. I heard it’s a Mah Jongg parlour, and you have to know someone.”
Businesses on T street intersecting 10th street are sparse in the wake of COVID-19, despite its location just a few blocks from the heart of Midtown. A quiet neighborhood with the exception of a light rail that runs through the grid. Almost every store in the area appears rundown except for Vintage Vinyl.
“I’ve never heard of a secret Mah Jongg house in the area, but then again it’s supposed to be a secret, right?” says Jon Bates, an employee at Vintage Vinyl. “I wouldn’t be surprised, though I’ve heard a lot of stories about Sacramento. I’ve only been here for seven years.”
Mah Jongg has a mysterious historical past. Tiles used in the game have cryptic meanings that many people have roots tied to China’s ancient history. The three tile dragons represent the three noble virtues mentioned by Confucius who many people originally created for the game.
Some say Mah Jongg was created by two brothers from Ningpo. The brothers are rumored to have possibly been army officers serving in Chekiang near Ningpo during the Tai Ping Rebellion. Supposedly known for their ivory carvings, they developed the game around the year of 1850. Mah Jong manifested in the provinces of Kiangsu, Anhwei and Chekiang, located near Shanghai and has created a large network of millions of players around the world with different variations of the game.
As a rule four players are required to play traditional Chinese Mah Jongg. In some non-traditional Mahjong games which are either the American Mah Jong or Wright Patterson
Mah Jong three players are allowed. This rule has created very close networks between players who are located near one another in neighboring cities. Today, there are two Mah Jong organizations in the United States. The National Mah Jong League, which has been joined by the American Mah Jong Association.
Vicki Jung, a member of the USA Mah Jong Club known as the USAMJC based in California, plays American Mah Jong.
“While I have been an instructor for 10 years,” she says. “I am by no means well versed in the historical aspect of the game other than what I’ve read through play books over the years. Mah Jong with one G, is for American or Jewish play styles with jokers. Mah Jongg with two G’s is for traditional Chinese or international play styles with no jokers.”
Lauren Thollander, another active member of the USA Mah Jong Club, has played Wright Patterson style Mah Jong for 15 years. Thollander lives in Santa Rosa, California.
“I learned to play with my mother,” she says. “She learned to play with women in Hawaii who were air force wives like she was.”
Tholland plays Wright Patterson rules based on the Wright Patterson airport base in Hawaii. In the 1920’s Wright Patterson airport was located at Cook Field, Mah Jongg players came together on base and created their own rules based on the Chinese game. For the Wright Patterson style Mah Jong the rules change every few years. Wright Patterson Rule Book publishes a new series with the latest addendums every seven years so players can transfer from base to post or port and still play the same game.
“Mah Jongg is completely different in China than in America.” said Tholland, “In American Mah Jong, the tiles have flowers and jokers. Chinese tiles have no jokers, the tiles have stems and mountains. When I went to China, before I knew how to play Mah Jong, I saw tons of people playing in parks and it’s very different. The players were very fast and there was a lot of money involved. They gamble with sticks like poker chips. American Mah Jong doesn’t involve gambling.”
The cultural disparities between the two games sheds light on China’s political history. China banned Mah Jongg recently in Oct. 2019. The Yushan, China police declared the ban just before the pandemic. An attempt to thwart illegal gambling and purify social conduct.
Parlours in China historically hosted large Mah Jongg Gambling rings. The first ban on Mah Jongg happened in 1949. The People’s Republic of China declared the game outlawed and completely banned by the regime. China, a communist state, banned all games affiliated with gambling because the regime considered gambling as an act of capitalist corruption.
Entrepreneurs and tourists brought the game over to America in the 1920’s and the game caught on very quickly. Founded in 1937 The National Mah Jong League created the first American rule book entitled “Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game”. The founders of the National Mah Jong League were all Jewish women as the game was often and mostly played by Jewish women in New York at the time.
Mah Jong came to Japan in 1909 just a few years before arriving in America. The game quickly became popular with older males. The Japanese version of Mah Jong known as Riichi has a major influence on Japan’s entertainment industry.
Arjuna Capulong has been playing Riichi for two months. She made the switch from games like Super Smash Bros. which are mechanically more demanding and can only be played online. She has found that mahjong is a game that helps you learn about yourself.
“Tsuchida Koushou has a lecture with NYC Riichi Nomi where he says something along the lines of ‘mahjong is about finding yourself.'” she said, “I’ve learned that you can really express yourself in the game based on how aggressively or defensively you play and what types of hands you like to make; light and quick hands or slow but high-value heavy hitters.”
Kenji Baba, the owner of Riichi Mahjong Central, developed his business as a resource for Riichi players. Baba decided to create a company that emulates some of his favorite professional players’ businesses in Japan.
“I learned Mah Jong from manga. I was in junior high maybe thirteen or fourteen,” he says. “One of my idols, Mr. IImuaa, the owner and president of the largest Mah Jongg parlour chain in Japan, started small with a few college buddies. They wanted to make Riichi a business, so they bought parlours that were going out of business and made non-gambling parlors a trend while teaching classes on the side.”
Mah Jong has always had an image centered around gambling, smoking and drinking as an underground game for adults. Now it’s a professional game. Players take tests to become certified and eventually become professionals in Japan. Companies in Japan sponsor professional players and have televised tournaments.
The Mah Jong house in Sacramento remains unfound. Daniel Trudeau, a writer, artist and musician in Sacramento, has heard it resides on the opposite side of town.
“I’m not originally from Sacramento, but I think it’s in Firehouse 5 in Southside Park,” he says. “The bass player of my band was told to go to that building for a rental agreement, and when he knocked on the door, he said he was greeted by many elderly Chinese guys who were all playing board games. He thought it was odd that they are playing these board games like every day.”
Southside Park is nearly five miles east of the original location provided by Gregorakis. Firehouse 5 hosts dance classes three days a week, no classes or meetings are advertised for Mah Jong groups.