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Monday, September 24, 2007

Mahjong Playing in Sibu

Nothing is more Chinese than the game of Mahjong. In Summer for centuries, the Chinese would play mahjong in the streets in China, in the open air, and in fact every where, where a table could be set up and four people could gather.

In fact Mahjong is not just a game. It has quite a few uses. Some are funny some are serious.

Firstly, mahjong is a social practice. When a family invites friends to play a game of mahjong, it is definitely a sign of acceptance. A tie has been established so to speak and it is both an honour given and accepted. So many gentlemen and ladies feel very honoured to be one of the four "legs" of mahjong game, especially if it is one of the community leaders who gives the invitation. Many people boast not of their skill in mahjong playing but in the invitations they receive from socialites of Sibu in those by gone days. Some datuks or datins can have up to four or five mahjong tables intheir homes.

Secondly,mahjong is fun. I have known of people who live to play mahjong. They are addicted to the game, which is indeed a very intelligent game. So, many in Sibu actually play round the clock mahjong games, forgetting to cook, look after their family and even forget to brush their hair.

Thirdly, mahjong is a game like golf. Many business deals have been sealed on a mahjong table. A loser can agree to a deal very quickly, while a winner can suggest something quite preposterous and get away with it. I remember seing some unforgetable scenes in the Foochow Association mahjong sessions. Some times a business man might chase after a towkay for a business deal and he would sit next to him to help him with the game. If the towkay had a good hand, he might consider helping the petitioner and give him a business deal. I found this to be rather condescending of the big towkay. If only he could be slightly more subtle about handling this kind of situation.

Fourthly, mahjong has also been the fall of many a woman. When playing the game with men, many women actually pay off their debts by having sex with the winners. Such stories are of course just rumours in the Sibu of the 50's and 60's period or just whispers which circulated quietly, like a silent revolution in the back rooms or the hair dressing salons. Well, any thing could happen between a man and woman. If the woman insists, a man cannot resist as the saying goes.

Fifthly, was told in many places, including Sibu, mahjong in the 50's and 60's, was also used as an arena for many mothers to choose their sons-in-law. Young men would be invited to play a game and the potential mothers in law would pick on a suitable man. A lot of characteristics could be read from how a young man played his game. A few marriages were settled on the mahjong table as well. Of course sometimes, some mothers had even been known to fight over a few suitable young men. that created a little bit of discomfort and some of the mothers had to back out to allow the leaders of the pack to triumph over their picks. Well, well, well, that is all I can say about these social fights.

Sixthly,mahjong can help many comfortable elderly ladies while their time away. In the famous novel, "The Dream of the Red Chamber" the ladies played mahjong with the old matriarch and had a conversation over their tiles. Thus is very probably that the game of mahjong was already very popular during the Ching Dynasty, around 1667 when Kang Hsi was the emperor.


Finally, mahjong can actually be a game of fortune. Fortunes can be made or lost by just one game of mahjong. So the story went in Sibu about a rich man who played mahjong day and night. He had always been lucky in the game. And his bets were big. One evening, probably after playing for many hours, he had a completely, beautiful "full house".He was so happy that he laughed out loud and bang the table several times. After that, he collapsed and died.

There were a lot of mahjong halls in Sibu in the 50's and 60's. The game was really popular then as life was slow and happy. People were not chasing after lots of money so most business men would play a game or two of mahjong in the evenings. I used to enjoy the sounds of the mahjong tiles clicking and slushing (sa...sa....sa...sa rak, sa rak....as the Foochows call them). Sometimes wives even bring their flasks containing ginseng for their husbands.

Pows, dim sums would be called up to the halls and little boys often receivede tips from the winners. Coffee shops make some money sending up their cups of coffee and tea. Becks' Key Beer, cigarettes and very often noodles were also delivered to the mahjong dens.

There were seldom any fights so the police did not need to patrol around those places. In fact it was known that a few of the police heads were great mahjong players themselves.

I don't really remember whether these gaming places had the proper licenses to operate. I just remember that mahjong was part of adult fun of that time and many happenings occurred related to the game.

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