It was a Wednesday evening and all was quiet in the massive lobby outside of San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. But on the building’s second floor, the tantalizing smell of Chinese food was wafting through the old, dank hallways.
And then there was a sound: the unmistakable clattering of plastic tiles on a tabletop.
It was mah jongg, which translates from Chinese to “sparrow clattering” — what it sounds like when the tiles are mixed together prior to the start of each hand.
On this night, there was a whole lot of sparrow-clattering going on, as members of the Bay Area’s Jewish and Chinese communities came together for a big mah jongg event sponsored jointly by the San Francisco office of the American Jewish Committee and the AsianWeek Foundation.
The July 27 extravaganza attracted nearly 150 people, roughly a 50-50 split between Jewish and Asian. Most of them were avid players, though newbies were welcome and instructors were on hand.
For four hours, in two rooms at Cathay Post No. 384 — the Chinese American Veterans’ meeting space in the War Memorial Veterans Building, which also houses Herbst Theatre — people gathered around tables to gossip, nosh and celebrate the game that occupies a special place in both Jewish and Chinese homes.
At any given time, there were 20 to 25 four-person games going on, with requisite breaks for dinner (Chinese food), dessert (rugelach and black-and-white cookies) and a short documentary, “The Tiles That Bind,” which featured Jewish and Chinese women reminiscing about their mothers playing mah jongg.
The dual-cultural aspect of mah jongg was the centerpiece of the night.
“Mah jongg is something I grew up with … and I wanted the chance to play it with my Chinese and Jewish family,” said one of the players, San Francisco’s Lauren Bellings, a Chinese American woman who is married to a Jewish man. “I’ve always been fascinated with the two cultures.”
As for mah jongg, “I think it’s definitely making a comeback,” said Bellings, citing as an example her sister in Los Angeles, who plays every Tuesday night with her friends.
At the event in San Francisco, the average age of those in attendance was about 60. And, true to the game’s reputation, women outnumbered men by a ratio of about five or six to one.
And yet, not every group of players fit the easy stereotype. At one table, middle-aged friends Fern Lehner, Amy Geaney, Denise Young and Jan Lozito, all from Oakland, lightly ribbed each other as they held the rule cards necessary for the American — commonly known as the “Jewish” — style of play.
“She’s our honorary Jew,” said Lehner, introducing Young, to the laughter of the others.
“My partner is Jewish, and she always wanted to learn, so we tried it,” explained Young. “And she doesn’t play now, but I do!”
“It’s definitely a social thing,” said Lehner. “We gossip, we eat, we have a good time.”
At a nearby table, younger faces from several different ethnic backgrounds were deep in concentration over the Chinese style of the game.
Sherman Lee, 26, had come up from San Jose just for the event.
“My aunts and my cousins on my mom’s side have always played, they go to the gambling parlors in Chinatown pretty much every day,” he said. “I only started playing about a year ago, but I know the three most popular Asian styles — Hong Kong style, Taiwanese and Japanese.”
And then there’s the Jewish style.
“Oh, that’s really different,” San Francisco’s Jeanelle Chang, 27, chimed in from across the table. “I know because I have a Jewish set I got from my aunt. Here, I brought it,” she said, digging into her backpack.
About an hour into the event, a line began forming for an eight-item buffet dinner that included chow mein, spiced chicken wings, fried fish and stir-fried bok choy. Dessert was black-and-white cookies and flaky, sugar-coated rugelach.
“There’s an old joke that Jews are about 5,000 years old, and Chinese civilization is about 3,000 years old,” AJC San Francisco board member Linda Frank said in a thank-you speech to the attendees. “The upshot, of course, is that Jews went 2,000 years without Chinese food.”
On a more serious note, she said, “We’re delighted to have such wonderful partners in the Asian community. It really fulfills the AJC’s mission, because forming relationships with other communities is what we’re all about.”
The adjoining room was designated for novice players, and it included a table for absolute beginners. There, teacher Toby Salk was sharing her wisdom, and some anecdotes about her own path to mah jongg.
She remembered hiding on the stairwell as a child, listening to her grandmother and mother play — she wasn’t allowed to be in the room. As a young adult, she finally tried it, and became hooked. But it wasn’t until her job as the director of creative services for the Sharper Image stores disappeared (the company closed in 2008) that Salk turned teaching mah jongg into a profession.
Now, Salk is doing regular business with people from all over the Bay Area. Many are people who have a relative’s set lying around but don’t know how to use it. Others are looking for new social outlets, friends or a distraction from life’s worries.
The game is a place where “people get to leave behind the divorce, and the troubles and this and that,” said Salk, who now has around 10 different sets — her students and friends often give them to her as gifts. “They come and have community and enjoy themselves, use their brains. It’s a challenge.”
As for why Jews play mah jongg — which was created in China in the mid-19th century — it all depends on whom you ask. It’s generally agreed that the game was imported to New York in the 1920s; the first sets were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch.
Though the initial fad tailed off, several variations become common by the 1930s — and the most widespread just happened to be a style popular among Jewish women. Today, that “American” version is represented by the National Mah Jongg League, an 84-year-old organization that publishes a new official scorecard each year, and the American Mah-Jongg Association, which connects players to tournaments nationwide.
“It’s the million-dollar question!” said Salk when asked why Jews play. “People come up with all these theories, but I don’t think anyone really knows.”
“I’ve read about the businessman who brought it to New York from China,” offered Xiaoming Jiao, a 29-year-old woman whose family moved to San Francisco from China when she was 9.
“This is all new to me,” said Jiao, who recently discovered her great-great-grandfather was Jewish, gesturing around at all the Chinese-Jewish intermingling. “But I’m so excited to know more about Jewish culture.”
Not far away, at a table full of old pros — all friends who travel to Las Vegas each year for a 300-person mah jongg tournament — was Sandy Belsky of Foster City. She said that while she normally plays the Jewish style, she did stop at the information table to pick up the rulebook for the Chinese style of play.
“Why not? I understand it’s more like gin rummy,” she said, as her Jewish friends settled back down at the table after a Chinese food break. “I’d absolutely love to learn.”