Dallas company The Mahjong Line recently came under fire following accusations of cultural appropriation. The company was created by three women who sought to make their own custom mahjong sets, making drastic alterations to the traditional designs typically seen on mahjong tiles.
Social media users, particularly Asian Americans, took issue with the fact that none of the three founders of the company were Chinese or even Asian. The language used in the company's "about us" page sparked more outrage, as the initial founder stated that all of the mahjong sets that she played with were "all the same" and "did not reflect the fun that was had," adding that "nothing came close to mirroring her style and personality." The description goes on to state that the founders decided that the game needed a "respectful refresh" in order to bring the game to the "stylish masses."
The idea that the traditional Chinese designs on the mahjong tiles supposedly need a "refresh" was found particularly offensive to many Chinese Americans, who accused the company of burying the game's Chinese origins. The company, at the very least, is insensitive to Chinese cultural and the cultural roots of mahjong. Using language such as "refresh" and "modernize," as the company apparently sells tiles in a "modern size," is diminutive of Chinese culture. Simply adding the word "respectful" in front does not solve the problem, especially after the company's founders decided that the traditional designs of mahjong tiles were not "fun" or "stylish" enough.
The Mahjong Line also cannot claim that they really wanted to respect the Chinese heritage of mahjong, as they clearly did not consult any actual Chinese people or Chinese Americans in creating their products. On their website, they even describe their sets as "not your mama's mahjong" -- although as some have pointed out, many Chinese Americans carry fond memories of their mothers or older family members playing mahjong and value these memories as part of their culture. The lack of communication with the Chinese American community in conducting this "refresh" shows a more self-serving motivation and a complete disregard for the culture behind mahjong.
Overall, The Mahjong Line's supposed "respectful refresh" was disrespectful and, ultimately, unnecessary. If the founders wanted a custom set, there are plenty of Chinese or Asian-owned companies that create custom sets without completely changing the designs on the tiles beyond recognition -- a truly respectful customization of the game could have come in the form of changing the colors of the tiles and designs, adding designs on the backs of the tiles, or just sticking to making custom tables to accompany the tiles rather than completely changing the designs and Chinese characters featured on mahjong tiles. Had The Mahjong Line at least made some effort to consult the Chinese community, they could have created the "respectful" custom sets that they aimed to make.