A group of Palm Springs' mahjong players are as passionate about their vintage sets as their weekly games.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN
While perusing a Palm Springs antique mall, Anne Rowe spies an object she wants but doesn’t need. It costs $250, so she texts friends for advice. They intimately understand her desire and encourage her to buy it.
The item in question is a mahjong set of bamboo and cattle bone tiles in a rosewood chest with brass hardware. Rowe doesn’t “need” it because she already has a “starter” set, as well as a vintage case with Bakelite tiles and a vintage travel set. She also has an incomplete set of wooden mahjong tiles that she purchased “just to study.”
Rowe and five other women in a group that plays mahjong at least weekly feel passionate about multiple aspects of the Chinese game, including acquiring vintage sets (typically circa 1930s) with handcarved tiles. Their collective careers encompass art, architecture, dance, heritage exhibitions curation, and real estate. They appreciate the artistry and history of vintage mahjong sets, wear jewelry made from playing tiles, and speak spiritually about the game itself.
“It brings people together and builds community,” Lise Baadh says. “I like it as an activity that’s the opposite of the virtual space a lot of us live in today. It is very authentic and sensory.”
Baadh owns a starter set, a travel set, two vintage sets with bone and bamboo tiles, and a vintage set with Bakelite tiles. “New sets are just [made of] plastic, whereas vintage sets have character,” says Baadh, who has paid up to $200 for single set.
“I was in a book club in San Francisco when The Joy Luck Club was published,” Rowe recalls, explaining that she was enchanted by the “romanticism” that author Amy Tan bestowed upon playing mahjong. “She described the sound as texture that I wanted in my quiet life. It’s weirdly relaxing. It takes me out of my head and makes me feel ‘present.’ ”
“It’s more than a game to me,” Robin Abrahams says. “There are so many levels to learn and not just learning the rules but your approach.” She began playing in 2019 and asked her husband for the set his grandfather got in Shanghai during World War II. No one in her husband’s family played the game, and her request was granted.
Though her grandmother and great-grandmother played mahjong, Juli Cavnar’s parents did not. She got into the game after meeting Baadh and Abrahams at a dinner and recalls her first mahjong experience as “the beginning of something beautiful.”
“There’s strategy to it — a visual component, a tactile component, a social component. It really is seductive,” Cavnar says. “My first [purchased] set was cheap. Then I got the bug. I bought a vintage set on eBay.” She now owns three sets.
Tyler Burton was looking for “community” and an activity beyond socializing over drinks. Her husband presented her with her first game, a vintage bone-and-bamboo set that he bought on eBay. “Tile visuals and sound are super important to me,” she says. The group cheers for her when she reveals that she paid only $100 for a vintage set with Bakelite tiles listed on eBay for $398.
Denise Anderson bought both of her mahjong sets in the late 1980s, when she was living in Singapore and had learned to play in classes offered by an expat club.
“I like the idea that we sit around and play, and everybody is chatting and it’s not super serious. Well, sometimes it gets super serious, but there is a lot of camaraderie,” she says. “My one regret is that I wish I had bought a mahjong table in Singapore; they had beautiful carved ones with drawers where you kept your money.” (The Palm Springs group does not play for money.)
Other than Anderson, Baadh has been playing longer than others in the group — 15 years. But her knowledge of the game dates back to when she was in third grade and her best friend was Chinese.
“Her parents owned a laundry,” Baadh recalls. “At lunchtime, the family would lock the doors and play mahjong in the kitchen. When I moved here five years ago, I wanted to play but had no set. I got one for Christmas, so [I] decided to teach friends to play.” She subsequently began offering classes and estimates that she has taught the game to approximately 250 people, including all 20 members of a local gay men’s mahjong group.
The community of mahjong enthusiasts, she says, “is like a subculture.”
Members of her weekly women’s group also play a New Year’s Day marathon and at “mahjong manias” hosted by Cie Sichuan Cuisine, a restaurant in Indio that accommodates up to nine tables of four players each.
“There are many layers to the game; those layers create the next challenge,” Baadh says. “And there’s a lot of history to the sets. You can see it. You can almost feel it.”
“We’ve become junkies for sets,” Cavnar says.
And, sure enough, Burton announces, “I want more sets.”
If you're interested in learning more about the Palm Springs mahjong group and joining their games, email Lise Baadh: firstname.lastname@example.org