Barbara Howard has a wonderful blog that is, believe it or not, all about MY TEA TOWELS! Well, not my towels, but HER tea towels. Anyway, it is all about HER tea towel collections. Last week she did a posting on Mah Jongg tea towels and I thought you would enjoy it. Much thanks to Barbara for letting me repost it!
This delightful, if somewhat small and unusually shaped, tea towel with ‘Mine is Playing Mahjong’ at the top, was a gift from Gwyn and Pete. As many readers of this Blog know, I have known Gwyn since 1979. Our friendship started through work but has moved on a bit since then. We have shared meals together, both at home and out in restaurants; we have looked after each other’s cats, and chickens, while we have been on holiday; we have been on holidays and day trips together; we have planned, and run, courses for professionals working with people with learning difficulties; we have organised and facilitated residential workshops for people with learning difficulties; we have played bingo together, got very drunk and done some very strange ‘disco’ dancing together; we have shared deaths and bereavements and basically spent a lot of time together, through good and bad times.
Gwyn has been fighting cancer, in various forms, for more than 12 years. When she became ill again about three years ago, we began to spend at least one evening a week together with Pete and Liz, playing games and having a meal. I am not sure we actually planned it, as such, but it felt like it helped make life a bit more normal, so that it didn’t centre just around illness. There was a ritual that developed – cup of tea (loose leaf of course), piece of cake or biscuit, some games and then food and possibly more games; Gwyn had to eat little and often, not big meals. Liz was always good at making home-made soup with produce from the garden – courgette and potato was a favourite when we were all overrun with courgettes. We tended to play Bananagrams, challenging the brain but something that you played at your own pace and took the consequences for; you don’t get held up by people who are slower than others. Occasionally, we would play Cranium or Bomb; both Gwyn and I had a lot of games that we could have played. My New Year Resolution for 2013 (with the co-operation of Gwyn, Pete and Liz) was that 2013 should be the ‘Year of the GamesFest’. We would work our way through all the games we both owned, systematically, using a Score Rating System devised by Gwyn. Ratings were based on the pleasure/entertainment value, length of the game, stimulation/challenge value, repeatability and whether we should keep the game or give it to a charity shop. Gwyn was in charge of scoring. It was amazing how many games we managed to unearth from our cupboards/attic: everything from Friends of the Forest (Winnie the Pooh and a great favourite of Liz’s and no one else) to Pictionary (popular all round), Scrabble to London Railway Journeys (only really liked by me), Bomb (big favourite of Gwyn) to Cranium (very popular with everyone), Kan-U-Go (no one liked it but I have happy memories of it as a child) to Dominoes, Cat Attack (I loved the combative nature of it; everyone else liked to be friends with each other) to Baker Street. There were some games we promised each other we would never play again (Remembering the 60s) and others like Bananagrams which stood the test of time. We would often play a new game, followed by a quick game or two of Bananagrams. What we had all forgotten was how good Dominoes was, not just the game but the sound of the tiles clicking together, the ritual of shuffling, the feel of the tiles. This was another regular. For some reason, I am not sure why, it made me want to try Mah Jongg. I knew I’d seen a set and had a feeling that sometime in the past I might have briefly played it. I just wanted to play another game with tiles (like both Bananagrams and Dominoes) but there was also something mystical about it. I knew it was complicated. The others were OK about this but nothing happened because sets are expensive and we would have to learn the rules. Liz remembered Mah Jongg being played in a Chinese Day Centre for elders that she used to visit and the ‘clack’ of the tiles, and the speed at which it was played. The GamesFest continued. Then for my birthday, in 2013, Liz gave me a Mah Jongg set, in a leather case. It was beautiful and incredibly heavy. Fortunately, she also bought a Rule Book, as recommended by Mr Amazon. As I opened it, we all looked at it in awe, so many pieces, such beautiful tiles, ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’.
Gwyn has always been in charge of reading, absorbing, understanding and explaining the rules of any game; she has always been the arbiter; we all happily sit back while she does the hard work. On this occasion we agreed that she would take the Rule Book home and read it and on our next meeting she would explain everything. There is always a slight danger in this approach in that she has control and sometimes rules ’emerge’ as we go along, that she had forgotten to tell us about; we trust that she isn’t making up the rules as we go along for the purpose of cheating!! One of the challenges for us all was that none of us had ever really played Mah Jongg so it was not like being taught by someone who was experienced; the first few games (or rather months) were slow going with Gwyn having to check on the rules at every stage of the game. It was a bit like building an IKEA flat pack. But we were all ‘hooked’.
The problem with Mah Jongg is that, although it is basically a Chinese game, there are so many variations, including how to spell the name – Mahjong, Mah Jongg (my favourite) and Majiang. There are American, Japanese, Dutch, South Korean versions, and different versions from different parts of China. We decided we would stick with the Chinese variation that Gwyn first read; she is basically a good interpreter of rules and has an excellent memory. This is good because Mah Jongg is a game of ritual: the terminology, how you start, how you mix the tiles, how you build the wall, how you start the game, how you collect sets, how you win and if you do it incorrectly the Ghosts of the Wall are upset. Personally, I can never remember which is the correct term to call out when you want to pick up a tile: “I’ll have that” is now an accepted phrase and whether something is a Chow, Kong or Pung is beyond my memory. I even have difficulty remembering the suits although the Rule Book clearly states that players can make up their own terminology; therefore ‘Circles’, in our game, can be ‘Pizzas’, ‘Plates’, ‘Carpet Rolls’, ‘Buns’. Some tiles have their own particular names: the 8 of Bamboos is ‘M and M’, 5 of circles is ‘X Factor’. Since August 2013, we have all become totally addicted to Mah Jongg, playing most weeks, sometimes twice a week. We are on our second special notebook for scoring; while Gwyn is the arbiter of the rules, I am responsible for scoring. For nearly three years, we have sat at the same place around the table in order that the order of play, and scoring, has continuity.
Basically, Mah Jongg is a game for 4 players and is akin to Rummy; it is a game of skill, strategy and calculation involving a degree of chance. We have a continuous debate about skill v chance, depending on whether you are on a winning or losing streak. There is a 3 player version of Mah Jongg (from South Korea and Japan) which we have played on a few occasions when either Gwyn has been in hospital or Pete has been visiting his mother in Brighton but these are scored in a separate book. Gwyn also discovered a Mah Jongg card game with bamboo card holders. We have taken this on long trains journeys, much to the surprise of other passengers, where the full game of tiles is impractical for reasons of space and weight. Mah Jongg is associated with many superstitions; fortunately we haven’t got to rearranging the kitchen to enhance the Feng Shui, nor are we in to wearing lucky clothing otherwise we would never get started. Gwyn and Pete have contributed a gold lucky cat with a waving arm which can add to the ambiance. In China, there is a ritual of changing your underwear after a loss; I am pleased that we have not yet resorted to this, otherwise we would never get to play more than one hand per evening!! Gwyn and Pete also have a set of Chinese suits for special occasions!!
As I said at the beginning, Mah Jongg is a game of speed, not thinking about moves in too much detail. We haven’t achieved this as yet. Some of us are more ponderous than others but as the years go on I am sure we will speed up. The four of us still talk about our fascination with the game; we still play other games, sometimes ending the evening with Banangrams or, if I can persuade anyone, a quick game of Catopoly before we start.
The tea towel, which has a photo shot of the partial Mah Jongg wall, makes me laugh, about how all this got started, what a great form of entertainment it is and how it is difficult to imagine not playing Mah Jongg (unless we fell out with Gwyn and Pete and that won’t happen); I can’t imagine playing Mah Jongg with anyone else; this is our game. I still have an ambition to use the ‘counting sticks’ as a way of scoring but I haven’t a hope in hell of getting Gwyn, Pete and Liz to try that!!