Mahjong expanding 'to every corner of the world'

Mahjong expanding 'to every corner of the world'

Foreigners are beating Chinese at their own game - mahjong.

Uproar ensued after the highest-scoring Chinese player at this year's European Mahjong Championship came in 30th and the highest-ranking Chinese team finished 37th.

"This result is equal to Brazil not qualifying for the World Cup," media quoted foreign Chinese news site Literature City as saying. (Many pundits pointed out that China didn't qualify for the World Cup.)

Emotions became visceral on social media, and traditional media chimed in. Explanations - some said excuses - were debated. Jetlag. Weak players. Luck of the draw - or lack thereof. Any and all of these may be true.

But Yao Xiaolei, assistant secretary-general of the game's Beijing-based global governing body, the World Mahjong Organisation, points to a certainty fewer dispute. "Although the results were not good, we should look at the very quick development of the European (tournament) mahjong in recent years. It showed Chinese mahjong's promotion has been rewarded," media quoted Yao as saying.

The game invented in China roughly two millennia ago is gaining ground globally in the new millennium. It arguably ranks among the country's top cultural exports.

"Mahjong is increasing in popularity in Europe," says Tina Christensen, president of the European Mahjong Championship's organizer, the European Mahjong Association.

"In Europe, mahjong (events are) organised in several countries with many tournaments and many demonstrations at game and culture festivals. There is some luck involved in mahjong. But China didn't send their strongest player to recent tournaments in Europe," says Christensen, who's also the World Mahjong Organisation's deputy secretary-general.

Australian Mahjong League managing director Freddy Fajardo asserts a home-turf disadvantage. "It's a combination of learning the tournament rules, scoring, formats and practice," he says. "Mahjong is a game of skill that does also require a little bit of luck."

More "mahjong cruises" are setting sail from Western ports, and overseas national associations, tournaments and leagues are proliferating.

European tournaments have surged from two when the European Mahjong Association was established in 2005 to 40 last year, Christensen says. The continent hosts about 700 tournament players, she says.

Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game co-author Ann M. Israel points to US surveys that suggest the country hosts between 500,000 and 800,000 players of various levels. "Mahjong is popular with literally millions of participants in all the Asian countries," she says.

"Mahjong is now played in the Middle East and all throughout Europe. There is no question the game has a growing international following. (Its) global popularity is expanding, with no end to its growth."

President of manufacturer Fun With Mah Jongg Anna Rosen points to industry surveys saying player numbers have risen from 90 million worldwide a few years ago to 500 million.

Owner of Dutch Web shop Mahjongshop DOt1 Janco Onnink explains the Dutch Mahjong Association's founding has meant the country has gone from hosting virtually no tournaments in 2004 to many.

"When we started offering our mahjong line, we had eight products," says Onnink, who has competed in international mahjong tournaments. "We now offer over 75 items … sold on a retail, wholesale and export basis. There were very few websites when we started. Today, there are thousands."

The Australian Mahjong League has hosted over 6,000 tournaments since its 2007 founding, attracting thousands of players who've won more than A$3million ($2.6 million), the league's managing director Freddy Fajardo says.

International trends include more daylong tournaments and weeklong festivals, Australia's Rockhampton Mahjong Club Inc president Jan Davison says.

Others are younger players and more men, although retired women still comprise most of the Western base. "Over the years, I've seen an incredible resurgence with kids as young as 7 wanting to learn and couples who enjoy an evening or afternoon game with other couples," says Rosen, who also teaches classes.

"Although the game is predominantly played by men in China, in the United States, most men consider this a woman's game and don't want to learn. But that trend is also slowly changing."

Israel points to nostalgia for the earlier decades when the game was popular in the US as a reason for its revival among younger Americans.

"Younger people - men and women alike - (are) … recalling with great affection the clattering of the tiles at their mothers' or grandmothers' mahjong tables," she says.

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