Wall 2a – Slightly overlapping circles show how precise hand carving need be
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Circulation – red, white & green mahjong tile
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Mahjong tiles being painted
Illustrator – Karen Aruba
Wall 5d
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The Art of Mahjong Craft

Mahjong is a popular game played in Hong Kong. It brings four people around a square table to play a game of chance and strategy with suits of carved tiles, with rules similar to gin rummy and dominoes. It is played at mahjong parlours, at homes for leisure, at Chinese wedding banquets, at family gatherings and during traditional holidays. Experienced players compete and teach novices. Generations come together and have a common point of conversation.

The chattering of sparrows sounds like tiles sliding across a table, so the Chinese word for sparrow is the name of the game. Mahjong was invented in China and widely played at the turn of the nineteenth century. Originally it was a card-based game before the more wind-resilient tile version became popular. It was exported to America in 1920 and became a game for women in New York, who created Mahjong leagues. It was banned in China between 1949 and 1985 because the government thought it was linked to gambling and too distracting for the people.

Inexpensive factory-made sets in China effectively ended demand for hand-carved versions, so today there are only a few aged Hong Kong masters still working in the traditional manner. But expert players prefer hand-carved tiles, because, unlike machine-made ones, each tile has a unique feel. Thus, their eyes can be on their competitors at the most important moments of the game.

Master craftsman Cheung Sing Chung has been hand-carving mahjong tiles since the age of thirteen when he apprenticed to his father. At his peak, he could carve four sets of 144 tiles a day. Now semi-retired, his daughter Karen Aruba is the third-generation advocator of the artform. Awareness was further encouraged in 2014 when the Hong Kong Government formally listed “Mahjong Tile Making Technique” as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

But for mahjong tile making to flourish, it must also adapt. So, Karen has applied her illustrator training to reinterpret the traditional game pieces with three new designs inspired by her travels to Canada and Greenland and by her experiences in Hong Kong. For each set, her dad carves the tiles and she hand-paints each with bright, original, often metallic colours.

For this exhibition, photographer AndyPoll captured the carving and painting process and put the final product under a microscope (i.e. a macro lens) providing a larger perspective on the work of the Cheung family.

To the uninitiated, the sound of clashing mahjong tiles may just be noise and the rules almost incomprehensible. But this exhibition shows that even without expert knowledge, one can appreciate mahjong as an art form and its part in Hong Kong’s shared cultural experience.

Text Martin Wray / Photos AndyPoll / Karen Aruba Gallery