Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mahjong, Singapore Style

For the past few months, I have not been able to organise MCR mahjong sessions due to the lack of available players. Yes, the player pool is small. Still, I managed to play some mahjong during the Chinese New Year, albeit in the Singapore Style. So, this presents me an opportunity to write a little about the Singapore variant of mahjong.

There are many varieties of mahjong in Asia, each with their own local flavours and developments. Singapore, despite being a small city-state, has its own variety. There are enough techno-savvy mahjong enthusiasts of Singapore-styled mahjong to have a Wikipedia article on its scoring, Singaporean Mahjong scoring rules! Despite being quite similar to Hong Kong Old Style (HKOS) mahjong (also known as Cantonese mahjong), Singapore Style mahjong has some salient differences: the use of four animal tiles; immediate payouts for kongs, flower/animals tile pairings and some special limit hands; and a high-scoring All Chows (All Sequences) hand. There are some other differences, but these are minor details. However, since there is no central authority governing the rules of Singapore Style mahjong, some of these features discussed here may not actually be played by some groups who profess to play Singapore Style mahjong, and these groups may include rules more consistent with HKOS mahjong.

Animal Tiles
People observing a game of Singapore Style mahjong would be immediately struck by the presence of the animal tiles. These animal tiles are the cat (猫 māo), rat (老鼠 láoshŭ), cockerel (公鸡 gōngjī), and centipede (蜈蚣 wúgōng). Animal tiles are used in the same way as flower and season tiles, that is, as bonus tiles. Each animal tile obtained counts as a tai (台 Mandarin: tái) [1], and a set of all four counts as five tai, with each animal tile counting as one tai and one bonus tai given for having a full set of bonus tiles. This means that it is easy to get tai (doubles) in the Singapore variant. Often, players with poor hands and no doubles in sight would hope to obtain an animal tile, and thus able to win, albeit with a minimal score.

The animal tiles are divided into prey (rat and centipede), and predators (cat and cockerel). The situation when a prey tile and its corresponding predator tile comes together is called a bite or biting (咬 Mandarin: yăo, Hokkien POJ: kā, 'to bite'). If a player obtains a corresponding pair of prey and predator, he can collect some payment from all the other players. Strauser and Evans (1964) [2] describes a different way of using animal tiles — players with predator tiles can capture prey tiles exposed by other players. This rule as described by Strauser and Evans is not used in Singapore Style mahjong.

Immediate Payouts
Singapore Style mahjong, like many other mahjong variants, is used for small-stakes gambling, and there are immediate payouts for some situations when they occur in the game. These situations include special combination of bonus tiles (such as flower pairings, animal bitings, bonus tile kongs), kongs of suit and honour tiles, and some special limit hands. Players need not win a hand in order to collect payment, and depending on the stakes decided at the table/house, such payouts can be more profitable than hands with low scores (i.e. few tai/doubles). Typically, immediate payouts for pairings/bites/kongs is set at 2× the rate of one tai.

Singapore Style mahjong usually use flower tiles in two sets. Usually, this is depicted by numbers in two colours (red and blue) or as words (the Four Noble Plants, 梅兰菊竹 méi lán jú zhú; and the Four Seasons, 春夏秋冬 chūn xià qiū dōng), often with both numbers (one set in Arabic numerals, the other in Chinese characters) and the words for the flowers and seasons. Each player will have flower tiles corresponding to his seat. A player obtaining both is said to get a flower pairing. This is colloquially known as kau'in (from Malay kahwin 'wedding'); sometimes, players say yao or ka ('bite' in Mandarin and Hokkien respectively) instead, following the practice for animal tiles.

For animal tiles, bites occur when a player obtains a corresponding pair of prey and predator (explained above).

Kongs are situations when a player obtains four of a kind, whether for normal suit and honour tiles, or for bonus tiles. Thus a player can get payment for collecting all four tiles of a flower or animal set, in addition to the bonus double for such a lucky feat.

All flower pairings, bites, and kongs can come as exposed or concealed. The payment earned for a concealed pairing/bite/kong is double that for an exposed one. Flower pairings and bites are considered concealed when a player obtains such tile combinations in his starting hand, before any replacement of tiles; and considered exposed in all other situations. Flower and animal kongs are always considered concealed, since it is statistically difficult to obtain all four in the set in a starting hand.

Besides bonus tile combinations and kongs, there are two situations where immediate payment occurs: for the special limit hands of Big Three Dragons (大三元 dà sān yuán, often translated as Three Great Scholars) and Big Four Winds (大四喜 dà sì xĭ, often translated as Four Great Blessings).

Any player obtaining the triplet combinations defining these two special hands can declare a win, which is scores the limit (usually set at five or six doubles), without having to have the rest of the hand complete. The uncompleted portion has to be kept concealed though, since there is an option to complete the hand for a higher-scoring win (provided the players agree to play above the set limit of five or six doubles). Although this is a common rule, it is by no means universally applied in Singapore, and some players prefer that the hand is completed in order to claim the win.

The Dead Wall
Besides the use of the animal tiles, immediate payouts, and the special All Chows hand (more on this in another post), there are some other differences in the details of the rules of the gameplay. One such difference is the number of tiles in the dead wall.

The dead wall is the portion of the walls where replacements for kongs and bonus tiles are obtained. In the Chinese Classical rules, exactly sixteen tiles is counted and separate from the live wall. This dead wall is not replenishable, and used only for replacement of kongs. However, in HKOS mahjong and Singapore Style mahjong, the dead wall is replenished whenever a player draws replacement tiles after declaring flowers and kongs, such that a certain number of tiles is kept in the dead wall. For HKOS, there are fourteen tiles in the dead wall, but for Singapore Style, there are fifteen tiles (seven and a half stacks) in the dead wall.

The one extra tile in the dead wall for Singapore Style mahjong could be attributed to the inclusion of the four animal tiles, which are not found in HKOS. Thus, an increased number of playable tiles could have led to a larger dead wall, to keep the random and surprise factor more proportionate.

Do note that the actual rationale for the dead wall in the original game is not known at all, and the mahjong variants found today have different number of tiles in the dead wall (if the dead wall is played). As mentioned earlier, in Chinese Classical mahjong, exactly sixteen tiles are reserved for kong replacements only, which is the total possible number of kongs in a hand of mahjong (four per player), rare but possible! In Japanese riichi maajan, fourteen tiles are set aside for the dead wall, but there are no flowers to replace, and there is no replenishment of tiles. Moreover, only four kongs per hand are allowed, which results in a draw unless the four kongs are made by the same player. (Edit: There is indeed replenishment of the dead wall after kongs are made! Many thanks to Tina Christensen for the correction.) In other variants, there is no dead wall, and play continues until all the tiles have been drawn. The variety of rules regarding the dead wall, or the lack of a dead wall, show that the function of the dead wall is not conserved amongst the descendant variants of mahjong. There is also no consistent explanation for the function of the dead wall by authors of mahjong books.

So, in this post, two features of Singapore Style mahjong have been discussed. The All Chows hand, pinghu (平和 Mandarin: pínghú), as played in the Singaporean game, will be discussed in the next post. Hopefully, this post has not been too dry and boring!

1. Tai is the common term for 'double', used in Singapore Style mahjong, and probably derives from Taiwanese mahjong, although the actual usage in Taiwanese mahjong is different from that in Singapore Style mahjong. The general Chinese and Cantonese equivalent is fan (番 Mandarin: fān).
2. Kitty Strauser and Lucille Evans, 1964, "Mah Jong, Anyone? A Manual of Modern Play", Tuttle Publishing. A more up-to-date and revised version with additional material by Tom Sloper was published in 2006 as "Mah Jong, Anyone?: A Manual of Western Play".


Tina said...

You write:

"In Japanese riichi maajan, fourteen tiles are set aside for the dead wall, but there are no flowers to replace, and there is no replenishment of tiles."

Actually there is replenishment of the dead wall in riichi, but sometimes players don't move the tile(s), they just remember where the game will stop in a draw: always when 14 tiles remain.

EP said...

Tina, thank you for your correction! I will edit the post accordingly!

eNoVee said...

Hi, i am from sg too and madly spreading MCR/COMJ/Chinese Official, whichever you called it. Most of my friends who play mahjong are converted to playing it. When do you start playing it?

EP said...


Thank you for your comments! It is definitely nice to know that there are other Singaporeans out there playing MCR and madly spreading it too!

My mahjong group started playing MCR around July 2006. So, it has been almost two years! I did spend a bit of time learning the rules before teaching MCR in turn to my friends so that we could play as a mahjong group dedicated to MCR.

It was quite tough in the beginning, since there were not really that many resources online for me to utilise. With so much development internationally, I think it has become easier to learn to play MCR. There are more online resources, and there are also books written on MCR (e.g. Tom Sloper's 'The Red Dragon and the West Wind').

Ness Burton said...

Hello Edwin,

My husband and I are interesting in learning how to play, are you running any beginners classes we might be able to join soon?

Please let me know,

EP said...


Thank you for your interest, and apologies in the delay in responding to your query.

While I still do run classes, there are no scheduled beginners' classes for the time being.

However, we can probably find an arrangement that may allow you to learning how to play. Please leave your email address in a comment so that I can contact you. Thanks!