The Mahjong Line Founders Have Apologized, but Will They Take Responsibility?
Their statement offers little in the way of solutions or redress for their whitewashing of Chinese culture.
Last night, infamous fashion watchdog account @diet_prada introduced its two million followers to a group of three white women, Kate LeGere, Annie O’Grady and Bianca Watson, attempting to give Mahjong a “respectful refresh” with The Mahjong Line, a recently launched brand of pastel-colored game sets priced at over $300 USD. Their goal? To “bring Mahjong to the stylish masses,” according to a now-deleted statement on the brand’s website.
The Mahjong Line offers five limited-edition sets that swap out the dots and Chinese characters engraved on traditional tiles with cutesy illustrations of flowers and bars of soap. There’s the Minimal Line (which, judging by its cluttered design, isn’t so minimal), available in three different colors, as well as the Botanical and Cheeky Line, perhaps the most perplexing of the bunch — tiles are engraved with technicolor bags of flour and lightening bolts.
While the designs themselves might not seem problematic, it’s LeGere, O’Grady and Watson’s erasure of the game’s history and cultural significance that reeks of ignorance. Though its exact origins are unknown, it’s believed that Mahjong originated in China during the 1800s. The game grew popular in the West during the 1920s, when Joseph Park Babcock, a Standard Oil employee sent to represent the company in China, devised a simplified version of it for an American audience. To this day, Mahjong remains hugely significant to the culture that created it — the game is a tool for communication, community-building and camaraderie in Asian communities, domestic and abroad. (China Daily also explains the meaning behind Mahjong’s tile illustrations, which our friends seem to think need refreshing.)
Professor Annelise Heinz makes the important point that American fascination with Mahjong, contrasted with the othering of Chinese culture as a whole, points to the country’s longstanding history of anti-Asian racism.
The Mahjong Line, which is based in Dallas, makes no such reference to any of the above history on its website nor its social media pages. Similarly, the brand’s lifestyle imagery bears scant indication of the game’s roots, instead opting for vague visual indicators of Eastern Asia — reminiscent of Orientalist symbolism rampant in colonialist art and writing — such as cloisonné bowls, elephant figurines and Buddha heads. Indeed, professor Annelise Heinz makes the important point that American fascination with Mahjong, contrasted with the othering of Chinese culture as a whole, points to the country’s longstanding history of anti-Asian racism. “White Americans embraced the game because marketers attached the game to ancient Chinese courts that were seen as highly esteemed, but also distanced themselves from Chinese American people who were denigrated and caricatured, and subject to nativism and anti-Asian sentiment,” she told NBC.
LeGere, O’Grady and Watson issued an apology shortly after @diet_prada’s post was published. “While our intent is to inspire and engage with a new generation of American mahjong players, we recognize our failure to pay proper homage to the game’s Chinese heritage. Using words like ‘refresh’ were hurtful to many and we are deeply sorry,” their statement reads. Though the trio seem to acknowledge their shortsighted marketing tactics, their apology fails to take responsibility for their whitewashing of Chinese culture, and offers zero practicable solutions for making their brand more conscious and inclusive. Though they mention an intent to “engage with a new generation of American mahjong players” (read: white players), they are not entitled to do so without first engaging with the community — and history — of the people who created Mahjong in the first place. This leaves us with several questions: does The Mahjong Line have any Chinese employees? In its development phase, did The Mahjong Line consult with any Chinese people about the cultural significance of the game? Going forward, how will The Mahjong Line ensure it pays proper credit to the origins of the game? As white founders of a brand built on Chinese culture, will LeGere, O’Grady and Watson launch initiatives to benefit the Asian community (which is facing xenophobic violence during the pandemic)? Will they delete their reference to haikus, a Japanese art form, from their website?
And of course, this leads us to one final question: is the very existence of a white-owned Mahjong brand cultural appropriation?