OK, cards on the table -- or tiles, as the case may be. The only mah jongg I've ever played is on the computer -- and not even a socially interactive online multiplayer version of the Chinese game, just the kind that came with my laptop software. The kind I play by myself at night when I can't sleep, occasionally switching over to spider solitaire, then capping it off with one last attempt for a rare mah jongg win.
It's not the real game, to be sure. And it's a far cry from the social phenom mah jongg became in the early to middle part of the 20th century, especially among Jewish women in the United States in what would become a cultural mashup involving conversation, gossip, laughter, tradition, dim sum and mah jongg-themed Jell-O molds. Who knew?
Well, the Jewish women did. But some of us just learned about all this -- and the various ways to spell mah jongg -- at the Project Mah Jongg exhibit, which runs through Oct. 28 at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum.
More confessions: I had not even been to the Jewish museum before. It's a very cool building right across from the Metreon, with portions that look like a giant cube smashed into a giant octagon. Project Mah Jongg is a one-room exhibit dotted with several kiosks and displays of vintage tiles, rule books, photos and, yes, even Jell-O molds, plus installations from 21st-century artists with their own modern twists on the game. Visitors can also jump in on a game at a special table in the gallery. On some days at noon, free board games are set out in the plaza in front of the museum.
Mad about 'maajh'
It seems mah jongg was imported to the U.S. from China (most likely via San Francisco) around 1920. All things from the Orient -- exotic wares, chinoiserie, travel souvenirs -- were already a big fad at the time, so the game became an instant hit among upper-class women. Soon, companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch (before they decided to sell shredded clothing), Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers started marketing affordable sets, officially setting a nationwide craze in motion. You could buy custom sets, as well as clothing, aprons and dishware decorated with images from the game tiles. There was even a doll named "Mah Jong Kidd," a little Chinese boy with a long braid. It was merchandising madness even back then (were it happening today, there would surely be a Lego version).
The game went from a fad in the '20s to a fundraising vehicle during World War II. The National Mah Jongg League -- formed by 12 Jewish women to standardize the rules of the American version of the game -- used money raised at tournaments to donate a mobile kitchen to war-torn areas of England and held fundraisers for groups such as United China Relief, the latter perhaps acknowledging a kinship with the Chinese through the shared game tradition.
In the 1950s and '60s, it spread big time to the 'burbs, where living rooms resounded with lively exclamations of "crack, bam, dot!" and the distinctive clacking of tiles.
Marathon mah jongg
A "night of maajh" became quite the production for hostesses, who often enhanced the experience with Chinese food, paper lanterns and tile-shaped confections. On one of the exhibit walls, if you pull a cord next to an audio disc, you can hear women sharing memories about some of those evenings. One gravelly cigarette voice says: "We played obsessively two or three nights a week. You'd get the baby sitter in at 7, and then off to play mah jongg, sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning. Can you believe it? As long as I got the kids breakfast and got 'em off to school in the morning, it was OK."
See what we miss by just playing on our laptops?
While you're at the Jewish museum, be sure to check out the extensive midcentury modernism exhibit upstairs. Drop in at the gift shop and browse "maajh" tile bracelets. Then have some matzo ball soup at the Wise Sons Deli in the museum lobby. Be sure to grab a bite of cinnamon babka. Mmm.
Follow Angela Hill on Twitter @GiveEmHill.
Project Mah Jongg
Where: The Jewish Contemporary Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco; 415-655-7800, www.thecjm.org
When: The museum is open daily (except Wednesdays) from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., open until 8 p.m. Thursdays. Project Mah Jongg runs through Oct. 28.
Cost: Museum admission is $12 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, $5 on Thursdays after 5 p.m. Free for those 18 and under.
Fun extras: Try the Mahj Group Tour Package, $25 per person for groups of 10 or more; includes museum admission, private tour and private play space. You can arrange for a catered lunch from Wise Sons Deli, too. There are special events as well, including a "Jews for Dim Sum: Build Tiles, Eat Snacks" event at 6 p.m. Sept. 18 and Oct. 16 with DIY paper tile sets (free with admission) and 1950s-inspired mah jongg snack boxes for sale from Blue Bottle pastry chef Leah Rosenberg.