Ever wonder why your Wasp grandmother played cribbage while your Jewish bubba favored…mah jongg? How did a game that was once reserved only for aristocratic men in China become a cultural icon in the melting pot of Jewish America? What do Yiddish, Hebrew, and Asian lettering have in common? What is it about Jewish rye bread that makes Asian men so smiley—or why would this image be so attractive to Madison Avenue advertising companies? And, while we’re at it, why does chow mein seem to be the chosen food of the chosen people?
These curiosities, and more, are explored in the recently released “Mah Jongg: Crak, Bam, Dot” (2wice Books), which looks at the game and at the mah jongg craze of the 1920s and 30s. The book was produced as a collaboration between the 2wice Arts Foundation and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, which is currently hosting the “Project Mah Jongg” exhibition.
Mah jongg—a game more widely known than played or understood—is a true cultural hybrid. With roots in ancient China, it made a lasting impression on American audiences in the 1920s and has endured as a cultural touchstone ever since. Part of this cultural hybridism derives from the experience of Jewish women who became closely aligned with the game by the late 1930s and who developed the National Mah Jongg League. “Mah Jongg: Crak, Bam, Dot” looks at this fascinating history and celebrates the visual universe of mah jongg as manifested in beautifully crafted game sets and packaging, in photographs of players, and in the broader context of fashion and style across cultural boundaries.
I’ve written a contribution for the book called “Anna May Wong: Silent Beauty,” which explores portraits by Edward Steichen of Anna May Wong, America’s first Chinese-American movie star. Other authors who’ve written more extensive chapters in the book include Jennifer 8. Lee, Paul Shaw, and Melissa Martens, who curated the “Project Mah Jongg” exhibit at the museum.
The book also includes specially commissioned art work by some of the most inventive illustrators, including Maira Kalman, Christoph Niemann, Bruce McCall, and the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.
It is no surprise that this book—so handsome, so unique, from the knack of its design to the whimsy of its intellect—is a thing of beauty. After all, any project conceived and executed by 2wice’s inimitable editor in chief, Patsy Tarr, and its editor and creative director, Abbott Miller (one of my heroes in the graphic-design world), is a surefire success of daring and delicacy. If you can’t make it to the museum exhibit, in the very least you ought to feel, handle, and read the book itself (one touch of the paper stock, and you’ll know what I mean). Now, really, it’s time to get cracking.