Annie O'Grady Kate LaGere Bianca Watson

Annie, Kate, Bianca

Our Mahjong Beginnings

Kate’s personal story with American Mahjong began five years ago with Dallas-based Mahjong legend, Marlene Stern. Marlene is both an instructor and tournament judge whose quirkiness and knack for telling great stories kept Kate entertained to no end (she also was kind enough to teach us some Yiddish curse words to be used during the most frustrating Mahjong moments). After learning from Marlene, Kate eventually found her way to a regular foursome, two of whom became business partners: Annie and Bianca. Annie, who was taught the game by her mother, has played with her huge extended family for decades. Bianca is also a veteran player.  She is Kate’s neighbor, dear friend, and one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet.  

Our extended Mahjong group plays wherever we can: each other’s homes, card rooms, over lunch at a deli, and always on family vacations. With 10 children among the three of us, kiddos are often running around in the background and/or playing alongside us. The youngest player in the crew is only eight but can beat adults with regularity. 

 

Spotting a Trend 

The American version of the game seemed to be experiencing a renaissance. In recent years, we observed a noticeable increase in Mahjong’s popularity within a newer demographic—women in their 30s and 40s. Annie was teaching groups of friends twice a week and could barely keep up with the demand. Players were definitely skewing younger, and the “mom” in us loved the idea of such a timeless game resonating with a younger crowd, i.e. devices turned off and real human interaction turned on.

We conducted market research, consulted with experts, and went down a Mahjong history rabbit hole to see what came before us. What we found was a large and diverse market for American Mahjong sets, with a wide range of price points.

The vast majority of tiles produced for U.S. domestic play would be considered traditional American Mahjong tiles. Of note, while these tiles were inspired by the original designs and characters of the Chinese game, the marketers of the early American version made a number of distinct changes (coins became dots, strings of coins became bamboo, dragons and jokers were added, and seasons deemphasized). Ultimately, a standard set included 152 tiles and was designed to be used with the playing card distributed annually by The National Mah Jongg League.

There is also a wide variety of completely original tile designs, many with no resemblance to the original Chinese characters (nor the characters of the traditional American set). Although dozens of non-traditional sets exist in the marketplace, we realized that availability can be inconsistent and prices on the secondary market are often quite high. We became more confident there was room in the market for fun, limited edition sets which celebrate our love of color and art.

 

 Design: Heck Yes!

In January of 2020, we began the design phase of our first tile prototypes, and the Covid-driven pause on life only heightened our focus and accelerated our productivity. “Don’t just WANT it, make it” became our marching order, and “live and learn” became our mantra as we made countless mistakes (big and small) on the way up a steep learning curve.

The tile art design process was fluid and fun. We went back and forth on fine-tuning the designs for months. We needed original designs that did not sacrifice playability (i.e. easy to interpret artwork, distinct colors for contrasting suits, and increased legibility). Annie’s experience as a teacher also helped identify common sources of confusion for new players (e.g. the numbers on flowers/seasons, one bird bams looking like flowers, etc.). All of this had to be applied to a small piece of plastic using a machine engraver and a human hand…easier said than done. 

 

Production: Oh Boy!

If the design component was fun and exciting, the manufacturing process was clunky, awkward, and altogether mind-bending. We knew nothing about manufacturing, much less for Mahjong tiles, racks, carriers and other accessories. We started the process here in the U.S. but quickly learned that producing custom-colored acrylic plastics—a major component of our vision—meant searching overseas. It was daunting to say the least—the number of samples, prototypes, and iterations going back and forth from China are too many to count. For every instance of pure joy there were many moments of pure frustration. We have many memories of checking the front porch incessantly, awaiting a prototype delivery. Luckily, we were introduced to an incredible partner in China who helped guide us through the rockier parts of the process. He has been (and continues to be) a huge component of our success.  But ultimately, it was three amateurs finding their way with a lot of trial and error.

The last step in bringing this all to life was creating a channel to market our products and speak directly to our core customer, in our own voices. This meant developing our own brand and ecommerce website. For us, Mahjong represents fun and fellowship. Our brand is intentionally playful and designed to celebrate the colorful personalities that belly up to the table.

 

The Launch: Buckle Up!

When we launched in November 2020, we took pride in accomplishing what we set out to do: create something unique and bring it to market. The initial response was incredible and overwhelmingly positive. We have been inspired by the number of fellow female entrepreneurs who have reached out to support us, and we are determined to pay it forward. Additionally, the feedback and support from the broader American Mahjong “establishment” has been a wonderful surprise. This is not a group we knew well, nor did they know us. It’s comprised of experts, historians, authors, and devoted players and can be a tough nut to crack.  The warm and enthusiastic embrace from this community is a true honor.  Sales to date have pleasantly exceeded our expectations (driven by a mix of seasoned and new players alike) and we are currently in production for our next run.  

 

Criticism

At the beginning of January, we found ourselves in the middle of an online firestorm centered around topics of cultural appropriation and race. Social media users accused The Mahjong Line of “white-washing” Chinese culture. Many demanded we shut down or “cancel” our business immediately.  It is difficult to describe this experience. Having thousands of online strangers hurl abusive, profane language at you and threaten your physical safety is daunting, especially for a tiny start-up.  Social media and national news outlets quickly amplified the rhetoric and generally did not address the long history of change within the game nor the current marketplace. The social media mob mentality is dangerous and not conducive to dialogue and learning.

On the other hand, we did seek out and find people that could share their honest opinions with us, and we continue to welcome sincere outreach from anyone who wants to take the time to share their viewpoints. Over the last several weeks we have connected with dozens of individuals over the phone, via Zoom and in-person.  We and our company are better for it and we thank you.  

There are some lessons that came out of these discussions.  Most notably, in the original website copy, we used words like “modernize” and “refresh” which can be associated with episodes of cultural erasure experienced by many Asian-Americans. We take full responsibility for this mistake.  We have added a page to our website that shines a brighter light on mahjong’s origins, history and evolution so that players (and soon-to-be players) can learn more about the game.  Additionally, it became obvious that many are not aware of the existence of American Mahjong as an established game, one that has been celebrated in the U.S. for over 100 years.  We provide information related to this as well.

Our products are wholly consistent with the creative expression and variety of products that have been a part of the game of Mahjong since its inception; and we proudly stand by them. We, along with thousands of other companies, celebrate American Mahjong by selling to the large market of dedicated players who love this game as much as we do. The outpouring of support from our customers has been a source of strength for us; we cannot thank you enough. We will continue to focus on growing the game.

 

Philanthropy and Looking Ahead

Philanthropy is a large part of the game of American Mahjong—the National Mah Jongg League established this early on as part of their mission. As mothers, our philanthropic efforts focus on children. Every month, we make donations to charities that help support young people who need it most.

The Mahjong Line was created with fun and fellowship in mind. It has been an invigorating, challenging, exciting, and humbling two years, and we are excited about what’s ahead. With every move we make in the future, we keep three things in mind: live and learn, people are good, and jokers are wild (but not to be used in a pair, of course).  

As featured in MJ DIVA Magazine (if interested subscribe here)

See our January statement here.