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Texas-Based Mahjong Company Faces Backlash For Cultural Appropriation

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Traditional mahjong tiles are bone-white and elegant. They feature images of Chinese characters and symbols. Think flowers, coins, bamboo. When a Texas company founded by three white women released sets of its luxury mahjong tiles, it ended up getting called out for cultural appropriation and apologizing. CNN contributor Jeff Yang is someone who's followed this story and added his own criticism of The Mahjong Line company, and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

JEFF YANG: Thank you. It's my delight to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So mahjong has been popular in the United States for almost a hundred years. But for our listeners who don't know what it is, can you just give a brief description of the game?

YANG: So mahjong is a game played by virtually the entirety of the Chinese diaspora and many people beyond it. It is essentially like the card game of rummy where you're trying to assemble sets of three or four matching or sequence tiles. It serves as sort of like this traditional cultural reference point for Chinese people around family gatherings and especially the Lunar New Year, which is going to be coming up for us in a couple months.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So The Mahjong Line decided to market their own sets of tiles with nontraditional designs, and many people found the language used to do that insulting. For instance, the website said the founders - again, all three of them white - quote, "decided the venerable game needed a respectful refresh." What did you think when you first read that?

YANG: It's obviously not the first and will be far from the last incident in which something coming out of a long-standing, non-Western culture has been reappropriated. Their other language talked about how they felt like the game did not really fit their personal style, and they wanted to actually make it fun in a way that it wasn't originally in some fashion. That's the kind of thing that I think sets off red flags for Asian Americans and other people of color when they encounter what is supposed to be a respectful refresh.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, there were also objections to the designs of the new tiles, which included neon colors, images of soap bars and palm trees, images of flour sacks. What do people say about that?

YANG: When you're doing a respectful refresh of something, you're acknowledging that that thing exists. You're elevating the original context and origins of that thing. And you're kind of making it perhaps more accessible, more open. But there's a real sense in which the erasure of the original Asian context of it and the lineage by which it's evolved was pretty apparent. One of the things I called out was, if you actually use this English-language pun and call flower tiles - F-L-O-W-E-R tiles - flour tiles - F-L-O-U-R tiles - you're kind of doing the most white possible thing to this game and making it really completely incomprehensible to somebody who's Asian.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there is this other question. When games - and I'm thinking of backgammon, whose origins are in Iraq - gain popularity in another culture, can they not be reimagined? Do you have to be faithful to the culture that created them? - specifically because games are things that mutate over time.

YANG: Oh, no, absolutely. And in fact, mahjong itself is a game that's mutated extensively over time, both in China and elsewhere. Those are natural evolutions. And I think people really generally see that as part of the process. But at its heart, the game is the same. And there's a sense in which the cultural transfer of even playing with tiles that feels that they have that longer connection is part of what makes the game a bridge, as opposed to something where taking it out of that setting and turning it into something that feels divorced in some ways from that history - that feels more like erasure to people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jeff Yang is an author and CNN contributor.

Thank you very much.

YANG: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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