How Mahjong Brought Me Closer to My Mother

My mother neverwanted me to learn how to play mahjong, fearing it might foster a propensity for gambling. When I was young, though, her sister would visit from London, giving her a sufficient number of players for the game. As dusk settled, I was lured from my bedroom to the table by the shuffling of ivory tiles and clattering of chips after someone yelled, “Kong!” My aunt, as aunts do, made me her proxy, giving me her seat and perching behind me as I played. Her sister acquiesced.

In time, my mother taught me the rudiments: a trio of suits, with tiles numbered one through nine, four of each; a quartet of capricious winds (east, south, west, north), four of each; and the triumvirate of so-called dragons — you guessed it, four of each. The object of the game, reminiscent of gin rummy, involves drawing tiles or taking discards to form sets: chi, a sequence of three tiles from one suit; pong, a trio of identical tiles; and kong, an elevated pong, all four of any tile. A winning hand, with a couple of exceptions, comprises four sets and a pair.

My mother will tell you that she’s not a gambler, but that’s a wily hedge. She zealously plays the stock market, the lottery and mahjong — a game in which payout grows not just incrementally but exponentially. She loves to tell the story of how she and her friends back in Kuala Lumpur would play for so long that one of them was wont to turn his underwear inside out so he wouldn’t have to stop. When my mother immigrated to Canada in the 1980s, a couple of heirloom mahjong sets were chief among the possessions she brought from Malaysia.

As a first-generation kid, I navigated the ragged contours of identity by trying to renounce my ethnicity. I was loath to bring pork-floss sandwiches to school, even though I thought they were superior to Lunchables. During the dawn of dial-up internet, I would clandestinely “ask Jeeves” about double-eyelid surgery (as if I could clandestinely undergo such a procedure). I still can’t really speak Cantonese (in my defense, neither can my father; in his defense, his native tongue is Hokkein). Before I departed for college, however, I had taken a real shine to the game of mahjong.

When I, my parents’ only son, left Vancouver for Toronto, my mother suspected I’d never move back. She’s right, but what Chinese mother isn’t? Her infallibility is at the root of most of our rifts, the most egregious of which stem from squabbles over money. In our family, her misconstruals become the truth; I’m the only one who puts up resistance.

But mahjong is where combat, stripped of vitriol, converges harmoniously with the topic of wealth. Together, we play until we can’t hold our eyes open; apart, it’s almost exclusively what we text about. Over time, she has disclosed more complexities of play, as if she’s been hoarding them in order to safeguard some tenuous connection between us. Every new skill I acquired seemed to beget even more intricacies. With a thirst for the game’s infinitesimal nuance, I sent for one of the heirloom sets upon relocating stateside. That mutual thirst, it turned out, would tether us across a chasm of continental proportions.

As time passes, I’ve come to realize that most high-scoring combinations in mahjong comprise a single element. An elegant hand — all ones and nines (akin to the aces and kings in a deck of cards), a flush of chi, a pong of every wind — is liable to bankrupt one’s opponents. Almost everything else yields a much-derided gai wu, or chicken hand. But there is at least one outlier: the elusive kaan kaan wu. At first blush it can resemble a gai wu, but this tactic lies in a consummate maneuver: The player must draw all the tiles they need, rather than taking discards. It’s a hand of agency, of self-sufficiency — the hand of the migrant’s wager.

It’s also a hand where our disparate personalities intersect. My mother, ever a Pollyanna, favors the gau sok tile, a riot of nine bamboo stalks in ruby and jade (and indigo in some sets). She once observed that the baat tung — the monochromatic rectangle of eight inky circles, dark and understated — is a harbinger of luck for me. (She’s right.) It’s no coincidence that its alternate name, gun coi, means coffin, evoking my sense of gallows humor. Kaan kaan wu, with its motley of melds, is where these two tiles from different suits can be used in a clean-sweeping hand.

I once read that “kaan kaan” — a hand whose concord belies its haphazard origins — can mean chaos. Today, the opportunity for me to play with my mother occurs on the rare occasion I visit home. It may seem odd that gambling has brought us closer than ever; it’s perhaps a sly subversion on my part, but it places notions of money into territory where winnings are ancillary to the pursuit of play. In the wake of our checkered relationship, the most profound fortune is how we’ve parlayed a wealth-obsessed game — one, no less, with a tile called the faat coi, literally “get rich” — into an invaluable bond.

Rudy Lee is a research editor for the magazine.

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