Mahjong Mistress Is Bringing New Life to a Centuries-Old Game

Mahjong Mistress Is Bringing New Life to a Centuries-Old Game

Feeling a lot more optimistic about my Lunar New Year plans than the ones I had for December 31st, last week I put on my sparkly sequin dress that I keep in the back of my closet for any parties that encourage ‘Feesdrag’. I called an Uber and texted Angie Lin that I would be there at 7:43pm, before doors opened. But by the time I arrived at The Aster social club in Hollywood, at least 20 other people were lined up in the lobby ahead of me, waiting to be checked in.

The Masters warned me of this: If I want a seat at a mahjong table, I must arrive early.

It was just the second event of Mahjong Mistress, a group of four friends who turn their love of the age-old tile-based game into one of LA’s can’t-miss parties. Lin, Susan Kounlavongsa, Zoé Blue M. and Abby Wu officially teamed up last fall after separately teaching mahjong to their respective groups of friends, hauling their sets to people’s houses and dinner. “I feel like a traveling mahjong set,” Lin said. “I always have a table, four chairs and three sets in the back of my car.” Now they had a guest list of 500 eager mahjong players and Lunar New Year revelers (and another 300 on the waiting list).

The murmurs and whispers of excitement began in the lobby, where The Aster’s concierge lined us up in orderly fashion in front of the busy elevators. We were spat out into a fifth-floor corridor that led to a low-lit cabaret. The Mistress set up 10 tables, ranging from beginner to advanced levels, with beautiful mahjong sets—tiles of lavish detail, such as black lacquer, translucent pearl, and intricate floral patterns. By 8 p.m., drink menu flyers were scattered around the room, damp from early birds sipping their fruity baijiu cocktails. Soon I had a running list of my favorite third culture-inspired clothing items of the night: a black bag that read “99 Problems” in the iconic 99 Ranch Market badge; a deconstructed qipao detailed with mesh and velvet; a bootleg Rush Hour 2 hat.

When I asked M. if they knew they’d be filling a niche lacuna in LA’s nightlife, she humbly cited their supportive friends “who really like to spread the word and support each other in a beautiful way help.” Indeed, I was hard pressed to find anyone in the room who didn’t know either of the Mistresses or one of their friends. All four women work in network-happy creative industries: Lin manages vinyl distribution and reissues for Light in the Attic Records while also releasing Taiwanese music under her own label; Considered by the others as the “Mayor of LA”, Kounlavongsa is a studio manager for the hip global radio platform NTS; Wu produces videos for 88Rising; and M. is a fine artist whose brother started a table tennis community called Little Tokyo Table Tennis with a cult following of its own.

Regardless of all the massive creative talent under one room, it seemed like everyone was really here for mahjong, the game that the Mistress adores because they keep their work lives at bay. “I feel like the core of the equation that makes everything so successful is everyone’s desire for cultural exchange, making communities and learning new things,” M. said.

They explained the rules over the microphone to ensure everyone could play: one game per person at a table. After two rounds of hovering and cheering winners, I sat down with three other newbies. One of the Mistresses slipped over to explain that we would be playing Taiwanese American mahjong, a shortened, “simplified” version to flatten the learning curve. (There are many other styles to learn as you progress, from Chinese to Filipino to Japanese.) Gracefully our Mistress assigned our tiles, standing behind us to identify pairs and sets in our hands that we didn’t immediately see not, and reminded us to call out “pung” when we wanted to collect from the discard pile. As I became more familiar with the tiles, sacred patterns began to appear across characters. Before long, I didn’t even notice that the roar was enveloping me; I just wanted to win.

“I love it when we teach people and they’re like ‘Yes, Mistress. Excuse me, mistress.’” —Angie Lin

The Mahjong Mistress chose their name for good reasons: They love alliteration and salute to hot women. “I love it when we teach people and they’re like ‘Yes, Mistress. Excuse me, mistress,’” Lin said. “It’s like, yeah, you’re my bitch! It’s just a fun, sexy name.”

But they also have a real desire to teach new people about the intimacy and female power connected to the game. Wu said she was channeling the energy of Lust, Caution, a film by Ang Lee loosely based on events that took place during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1942. One particular scene shows the wives and mistresses of the film’s male characters gathering around a table to play—but also to exchange information, offer protection, and make decisions on behalf of their male counterparts.

As I played what I worried was the longest, clumsiest game of mahjong in Taiwanese American history, I missed the free baijiu tasting in the adjoining room, just a glimpse of the range of complex reactions from people’s first sips of the plum, yet umami-rich Chinese drink. But I experienced another first: a performance on the guzheng by artist and musician Jett Kwong, which brought a sweet calm to the growing entropy in the cabaret.

I mingled with people who got off the tables for the live music, and I met Jennet Liaw, a former New Yorker who got to know LA better by saying “yes” to interesting parties. With Kwong’s strings as the soundtrack, she told me she was happy to see new and old players sitting at tables together. Then she said something unusually poignant to hear at a rowdy party: She was thinking of her grandfather.

“I realize now, when I look at everyone playing, he made me win,” Liaw said. “He made me win 20, 30 times before I found the missing piece, and that made me feel very confident and gave me a positive relationship with mahjong. We also gossip about little family things, and I miss that a lot.”

As the lion dance began to wrap up the night, I waited in line for drinks with a contestant named Chris Chan, who was channeling his inner David Byrne in an oversized structured emerald green jacket and matching loose pants. Through his little black sunglasses he told me the party was great because he felt very much at home.

“I texted my mom and said I was playing mahjong with people who had never played before and that it felt unfair,” Chan said, subtly conveying his lifelong experience with the game. “She said they only pay their membership fees by learning to play mahjong and getting into the culture. I was unsure about this, but everyone was open to learning, and that’s really refreshing.”

When I heard this, I was disheartened after agonizing over how uncomfortable I felt at the table. I opened a tab in Chrome on my phone to start looking for a mahjong set when I got home.

Just before the New Years countdown, I ran into some friends I should have known would be here. We marveled at our not-so-small LA Asian circle and laughed irreverently at jokes that on any other night would be more discreetly uttered at The Aster: “This is the white man’s dream party!”

Since the Mistresses’ first event – last September, for 100 people at NTS’s studio in Pico-Union, featuring DJs, Taiwanese family-style cuisine and a projector that pulled through iconic mahjong scenes from a variety of films – they have been the courted by brands and TV producers looking to provide capital for future events or profile them on MTV documentary-style productions. I wondered if they were worried about the commercialization of their success, or more so, the eventual loss of their homegrown spirit. But the Mistress is in the industry; they can discern what blatant salaries are to sell authenticity.

“We’re really protective about what we do,” Wu said. “Making a profit is not our priority. We are just here to have fun, have fun and bring people together. We are going to be very careful with everyone.”

Mahjong Mistress reveals more good things in their Year of the Rabbit. Lin, Kounlavongsa, M., and Wu indicated that they want to create educational programs with museums about the history of mahjong and take their parties to New York. These are goals for now, but they feel like the natural progression for Mahjong Mistress. There isn’t a cooler group of women to teach people a livelier way to sit and gossip with three new friends.

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