Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Mahjong Magic (A Straits Times Article)

This Straits Times (ST) article appeared almost a month back, on December 2nd 2007. As some of you may have noticed, the writer of the article, Sandra Leong, left a comment on an earlier post. Following that, JT and I decided to do an interview with Sandra because we were intrigued by the direction the proposed ST article could take. Although the interview and the newspaper article came at a bad time, I am glad that we participated in the writing of this article.

The article Mahjong Magic explores the state of mahjong in Singapore now. Mahjong is predominantly regarded as a gambling activity and is thus banned from being played in public places. Alas, due to this, mahjong tournaments (of whatever variant/style) are also banned. Even mahjong using Mahjong Competition Rules (MCR) would be suspect. Mahjong is thus typically played in the privacy of one's home, and is a highly popular pastime among the Chinese, whether for small stakes or for more high-stake hardcore gambling.

There has been a renewed interest in mahjong, and this may be attributed to the buzz created by the Integrated Resorts (IRs) slated to open in 2009. The building of the IRs marks the relaxation of gambling restrictions in the form of legalised casinos in Singapore (well-known for its clean and boring image). No doubt, the recent World Series of Mahjong held in Macau contributed to the buzz. Since this increased interest is due to the gambling aspect of mahjong, it is unlikely to improve the image of mahjong as a serious game.

However, there are positive developments as well. There is a greater interest in mahjong not as a tool for gambling but as a tool for mental stimulation, especially among the elderly, with support from medical research. There is a possibility that mahjong will be allowed to be played publicly (in community centres, for example) as a means to let senior citizens keep mentally active (see Mind Games to While Time Away in an NTUC article on wellness). Across different demographics, interest in mahjong is rising. Non-Chinese are learning how to play this interesting game; more young people are picking up because of the mental challenges, association with gambling notwithstanding; and we (JT and I) represent those who are taking it as a serious mindsport. Mahjong is good for things other than gambling after all, and there are people who recognise this!

Anyway, the ST article was basically a chance for us to advertise MCR in Singapore. We are passionate about mahjong, and we want to show the rest of Singaporeans how fun and challenging mahjong can be, without the stigma of gambling. Well, we are still trying to assess the impact of the article on this particular aspect, but JT is already a little miffed that people apparently did not read the article carefully or at all, judging from their uninformed comments. She had written about her thoughts and reactions in Mahjong Article on ST Life and Further Reactions on the ST Article on her blog JT's Life Snippets.

Although we have received some rather snide and uninformed comments, there are some perhaps positive outcomes. There have been some tentative requests to know about the game, and we are most glad to share more about MCR. It will be good to spread the MCR ruleset as an alternative to the local variant ("Singapore Style"), and to meet fellow mahjong enthusiasts and make some new friends in the process. The long-term impact is harder to gauge, but at least we have moved one step, albeit a tiny one, closer towards our goals of seeing mahjong tournaments and serious participation in mahjong as a mental sport in Singapore.

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