Thursday, April 03, 2008

Majong Session (by Peter Chan)

For some strange reasons, I never pick up the game of majong, although I often watch my grandmother, my aunties or their “kakis” have their afternoon sessions. My grandmother only invited folks who were Cantonese-speaking and who lived in the Tiong Bahru SIT estate area. Sometimes my grandfather participated because someone backed-out at the last minute. So having male players was the exception.

Pic 1: My grandmother and grandfather at the majong table (circa 1959)

My very first introduction to majong was probably before I went to primary school. My grandmother was responsible for setting up the table and covering the top with the smoothest white paper my eyes ever saw. My “duty” was to greet each aunty and offer them their favorite drink. I was also tasked to do the refilling when ever I spotted the glass or cup empty. Chinese Jasmine tea and black coffee were the popular drinks. The drinks were placed on a small wooden stool next to each player. If my grandmother won the game that day, I was sure to get rewarded with my favorite “Ku Lu Yoke” from San Hoi San, the Cantonese cook across our flat. If she lost, she would not speak and I would not dare to ask her “what’s cooking for dinner”.

This game fascinates me. I always wondered why someone would shout “Pung” very loudly, utter swear words, open small little boxes below the table and exchanging little colorful plastic tokens. There was the “breast stroke” motion of moving the tiles around on the table, and arranging the tiles into 4 rows at 90 degree to each other. I saw each player taking turns to take the tiles from the center of the table. Then the game ended with a shout of “Pung”.

The game commenced shortly after lunch (when “Lai Dai Soh” came on the air) and ended just before dinner time because it was my uncle’s turn to listen to “American Top 40”.

Perhaps If I took to the game, I would have achieved wonders for my Chinese Second Language in school.

24 comments:

Lam Chun See said...

Peter. How come you never learn how to 'chow soi'? i.e. collect winner's tax.

peter said...

chun see
u think I got guts as a child? My grandmother is the "See Yap" clan and you know what that means.

I could sense tempers around when people play majong. In my minds swear words like "Hey Yau Chi....."Iti pai kum tai say...."

Zen said...

I also grew up with mahjong playing. My mother practically played passionately with anyone who cared to join in the game. I noticed she and my uncles indulged in this past-time whenever they met, and from my observation they were totally engrossed, focussed, and sharp-minded during the playing session. Therefore mahjong playing is said to be a stimulant to the mind has some basis not just an empty assertion. The negative part is that many fiery tempers are frayed during the process of the game, that is why the cantonese used to say if you want to see the true character of that particular person, engage him (or her) to play mahjong. The verdict would be out in no time.

Zen said...

In my earlier post I told the story of my grandma who came from the county of 'nam hoi',
quangchow . The strange thing about her was that she didn't like majong and instead took to chap ji ki(kind of daily betting on two digits) which was her favourite. She would day-dream for hours meanwhile smoking away her favourite cigarettes (either double aces, capstan or some branded ones). I could have taken up majong if not for my handicaped left fingers, therefore unable to cope up with the speed of the majong tiles arrangement. Sometime I would like to sit beside my mom and saw how skillfully she would control the game.

Lam Chun See said...

Zen. Before you go around promoting the health benefits of mahjong; you should warn our readers that too much mahjong; and thus over-taxing the grey cells, can lead to premature balding. Don't believe can ask our good friend Chuck. Especially if you strike too many "Sup-sam-yew" (十三 - 一).

Lam Chun See said...

OK. Here's a mahjong quiz question. Cantonese guys should have no difficulty answering. What's "sau choi sau kan" (秀才手巾) or scholar's handkerchief?

Anonymous said...

Surrender ???

Zen said...

Chun See is quite off-mark in term of the hair-raising part. He must have forgotten that most of my uncles (maternal side) were avid majong players, at the same time maintained crops of lovely black hairs till old age, so quoting Chuck, a lone 'wolf' (pardon my language), does not hold much water. Even our ks govt is now encouraging senior citizens to play majong so as to sharpen their sluggish minds, not just keeping them away from politics.

peter said...

How much truth is there about playing majong and living to a ripe old age, I cant verify but I do know my maternal grandmother, some aunties lived to close to 100 years old. The day they stop playing wa sbecause eye-sight failing them and next moment literally die from heart attack.

I agree with Zen, people who play majong got no time to "discuss" about socio-economic problems in our society - whetehr there is good govt or not, whether taxes good or not, or gossiping about someone else.

Zen said...

Peter - Oh!... gossiping is certainly playing a supporting role in the majong game. I remembered when my mum played with her 'kakis', and during the the more relaxed moment, gossiping would be circulating around, with participants forgetting that the wooden walls had ears. So gossiping can be classified as a very powerful communicating instrument at all levels of our society. In other words as long as there are people there will be gossiping which breaks through all social barriers (e.g. Do you know this and that...?). The govt knows fully well of the awesome power of gossiping because it is almost impossible to prosecute a gossiper.

The present health gurus generally agree to the concept that the well being of a person depends on good mind-body health care. Neglecting one of the integrated parts is simply asking for trouble.

yg said...

that's why i say that we should play mahjong with like-minded friends who have the same objective - to pass time and to socialise. it's a time to relax, not a time to be anxious and all tensed up and to get so worked up that we start to swear.

Tom said...

Tom said...
I always thought Mahjong was like the game of Dominoes? dominoes has a set of 28 pieces, I see why people who play Mahjong and go into a mood, wow 144 pieces is alot to play with , mind you people who play dominoes ,go moody and start to swear, and they are only playing with 28 pieces I like to winning I hate losing. HaHa.

Zen said...

Playing mahjong as a form of entertainment is perfectly alright, but to involve in Casino or big time gambling is the surest way to self destruction. The cantonese used to say out of ten gamblers nine will be losers. When I was in my twenties, I jokingly asked my senior what was the first thing he looked for when marrying a girl. He wisely replied: "never, never marry a girl addicted to gambling!" For safety first reason, I took his advice very seriously.

Brian Mitchell said...

As a UK teenager I often walked from Changi Village along the coast to the Officers Club swimming pool and would pass games of mah jong being played - often noisily - in some of the houses near the village shops. The game always fascinated me and I am sure we were not the only UK service family to buy a mah jong set to take back to the UK - we used to play quite a bit soon after our return and I believe my sister still has that set. I have no idea how to play it now but still recognise many of the tiles, the set was a thing of beauty in itself and I still love seeing it played in films -takes me right back to Changi Village in the 1960s!

peter said...

For those who readers who r interested in the old SIT flats (build by the British Colonial Govt)at Tiong Bahru, that photo shows the interior of a ground floor flat at Eng Hoon Street. I got some photos taken way back in the 1930s when my ancestors moved in to stay.

Lam Chun See said...

In the old days, the Chinese scholars used their hankerchieves or napkins to wrap their books. In Cantonese this is called "pow she"; which sounds like "sure lose"

So "sau choi sau kan" (秀才手巾) means a loser.

peter said...

now i remember somehting from the past. The ladies who came to the majong session usually had a small plastic wallet (with a zipper) to keep the money. A hankerchief which was tucked on the right-side of their samfoo blouse. When they cough they would pull the handkerchief out , flipped it once and then use it to cover their mouth.

Zen said...

While holidaying in Szechuan China, our bus passed a deep gorge and the quide asked: "Do you know what laid below the gorge?" Of course none of us knew the answer. Then came her reply: "An entire village was buried inside the gorge due to earthquake many years back and....the scary part - people used to hear loud sound of mahjong playing coming out at night from below!" Whether it was a tall tale invented out of boredom by some local jokers, it was entirely left to our imagination. Indeed when we reached Chengdu, the capital, the whole place was scattered with mahjong clubs. This province should have one of the largest number of mahjong players in China.

Victor said...

Peter, actually I read your very interesting story much earlier. But while typing in a long comment, I realised that I have enough material to write a blog entry on mahjong myself, hehe. So I aborted the comment and saved it for my article. ;)

To give you a bit of preview - I have my own tale of winning from all the neighbourhood mahjong kakis. As Frank Sinatra would have done it, I did it my way.

Article akan datang (Malay phrase literally meaning "will come" or in cinema terminology, "next change".)

Zen said...

It is common knowledge that some rich men have more than one wife and in order to keep peace under one roof the husband should have one official wife (usually the first one) and three concubines- why? so that the ladies can play mahjong together, lessen the rivalry, more forcused on the mahjong table (may neglect their off-springs), pay less attention to their husband's numerous outside 'activities', and above all less headache to the big boss. Still there is no guarantee that this strategy may work out as expected. It takes a brave guy to try his luck. I believe this is just a passing joke, not to be taken seriously, to highlight the unique role of mahjong playing with a special influence to a Chinese society.

Victor said...

My mahjong post is up.

Anonymous said...

Hi, after reading this blog, found it quite interesting. I m 25 years old, thinking how old are u-all guys. Thanks for sharing. Keep it up.

Lam Chun See said...

I think all of us are over half century mark.

Anonymous said...

Hi stumbled upon your blog cos looking for my daughter's exam centre at Tiong bahru... I grew up there... Fr 1970-1983 at blk 24... And yes I used to watch a few movies at nights in a week cos my grandma and aunt loved movies. We usually walk to King's theatre!!
What's more, as an impish kindergarten kid, I used to throw Thgs down fr the 4 th flr toward the students walking to Toong Bahru and Bt Ho Swee Sec Sch...
What good memories! There was also the joy of ordering food fr the noodle seller who will put the food in the basket we lowered fr above!!