The clack of Mahjong tiles is as Hong Kong as dim sum and Cantonese opera. In fact in 2014 it was named ‘an intangible cultural heritage’ by the government, along with umbrella-making and kung fu.
The popular Chinese table game is similar to gin rummy and is currently played by an estimated 350 million Asians. A Singapore Mahjong parlour even made a brief appearance in recent box hit smash Crazy Rich Asians.
But despite that, just a handful of Mahjong carving shops remain in Hong Kong today. The traditional tile has fallen foul to mass produced plastic tiles, electronic Mahjong tables, Mahjong app games and a youth who are spending more and more leisure time glued to their phones. Market research company Ipsos reported earlier this year that just one in 50 young Hong Kongers regularly play, compared with one in 12 five years ago. The once buoyant carving industry is now in the hands of a scattering of octo- and nano-genarians.
Illustrator Karen Cheung was born into a Mahjong family – her father is a traditional carver who took-over the family-run tile factory, Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Manufacturing Factory, which was set up by her grandfather, supplying Hong Kong’s Mahjong parlours and hotels. But due to dwindling demand, her father was forced to shut up shop ten years ago.
“The day he closed the factory was so sad for him and my mother,” says Cheung. “They had to lay off employees who had worked for them for decades. He packed away his tools and didn’t even want to look at them again.”
But Cheung had other ideas. Her creative business, Travel with Pencil & Color, is a side-hustle (“it’s difficult to make a living drawing in Hong Kong,” she says) to her main job as an events organiser. “I come home from work, sleep for an hour or so, and then I draw from 11pm into the early hours,” she says.
Over the last six months, she has painstakingly designed five different Hong Kong scenes which have been carved into sets of Mahjong tiles. The six carved tiles in each set depict different areas of Hong Kong and come with a wind or dragon tile hand carved and painted by her father. North Point owns the North wind, Tung Chung the East, Sai Kung the West and Southside the South. Central is matched with the red dragon.
Tiny, beautiful details include a miniature Foreign Correspondents’ Club etched onto the Central tiles (quite apt as that is the venue for our meet-up), the Lantau buddha and cable car, seafood shops in Sai Kung and The Repulse on Southside.
“I think my father was ultimately glad to pick up his tools again,” she says. “He understood my excitement about the project. The challenge for me was managing high labour costs. From packaging to promotion, it’s been a steep learning curve.”
Cheung worked with fellow designers Connie Siu and Maggie Cheung on the project and it has gone on to win the Judges Award at this year’s annual Hong Kong Smarts Design Award, organised by the Hong Kong Export Association. “I think Hong Kong tourism likes this sort of thing as it promotes Hong Kong’s heritage and culture.”
Cheung says the project bridges the gap between traditional craftsmanship and modern art, aiming to reignite the dying art of hand-carved mahjong with advanced printing technology. The trio now find themselves in the top eight finalists of the K11 D Project this year.
Cheung will be managing a pop-up shop in K11 shopping mall this month featuring the Mahjong tiles sets, Travel Mahjong City, and other Mahjong-inspired products. Customers who spend over $350 will receive a set of postcards depicting the mahjong story, while shoppers who spend over $500 will be receive a hand-carved ‘Sparrow Mahjong’ tile.
“Sparrow sounds the same as Mahjong in Chinese, the click clack of the tiles being shuffled is referred to as ‘twittering of the sparrows’,” she explains.
Cheung is currently working on a set of tiles to celebrate Christmas and Chinese New Year in the territory – the Lunar New Year is traditionally a time when families get together to play Mahjong.
“I’ve always loved drawing and I’m so pleased to have been able to turn it into a viable project,” she says.
Cheung’s pop-up shop will open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday between September 28 and October 21, K11, 18 Hanoi Road, Tsim Sha Tsui (MTR TST exit D2), karenaruba.com
Hong Kong’s Mahjong carvers
There are estimated to be a mere handful of carving shops left in Hong Kong, possibly not even that.
Biu Kee Mahjong is still operational on Jordan Road, Yau Ma Tei (opposite the entrance to Temple Street night markets).
Kam Fat Mahjong is the only female Mahjong carver in Hong Kong and has an under-the-stairs workshop in Hung Hom.
Factory-produced, plastic tile sets can be found in most markets, including Stanley and Cat Street.
Where to play
American Women’s Association (AWA) members and American Club members play every Tuesday, 10am-4pm, American Club, Tai Tam, awa.org.hk
Australian Association of Hong Kong members play every Monday, 10am-1pm, Dynasty Court Function Room, 17-23 Old Peak Road, Mid-levels, ozhongkong.com
The AWA will be organising a Mahjong Fundraiser in support of local charities, 10am-3.30pm, October 19, American Club Fireside Lounge, 28 Tai Tam Road, Tai Tam, $500/member, $500/guest, complimentary buffet lunch at noon, drinks charged to member’s accounts or payment by credit card, open to all, awa.org.hk