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Skirball Cultural Center

2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90049 - (310) 440-4500


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Skirball Cultural Center presents

Project Mah Jongg

May 17–September 2, 2012

Exhibition explores the “Game of a Thousand Wonders,” a pop culture fave of everyone from great aunts and baby boomers to hipsters who clock hours playing online

  Mah jongg score card  

Above: Mah jongg score card (detail), c. 1923. Courtesy of Majorie Meyerson Trioum.


LOS ANGELES—What connects America’s Jews to Chinese American culture and communities? Christmas meals at Chinese restaurants, no doubt, but the decades-long enthusiasm for mah jongg must not be overlooked. Since the Chinese game was introduced to the United States in the 1920s, it has assumed a central place in Jewish popular culture, entertaining generations of Jewish women and inspiring décor, fashion, household products, philanthropy, and more.

The exhibition Project Mah Jongg—on view at the Skirball Cultural Center from May 17 through September 2, 2012—brings alive the beauty, fantasy, and whimsy of mah jongg. It explores the fascinating history of the game and its impact on cultural identity and the popular imagination. Displays of vintage photography and historical objects, such as colorful tiles and artful score cards, are complemented by contemporary mah jongg–inspired works by artists such as Isaac Mizrahi and Maira Kalman.

With a visitor-activated audioscape echoing the clacking of tiles and triumphant cries of “Two bam! Three crak! Four dot!”—plus a sophisticated design that its creator, Abbott Miller of Pentagram Design, calls “part Chinese, part synagogue modern”—the installation evokes the lively spirit of the game. At the center of the gallery is a game table, available for visitor play, while numerous tables on the adjacent terrace comprise an outdoor mah jongg play space. On weekends, these will be supplemented to include an array of games for families and children. Additional related programs include a how-to-play class taught by a top instructor of American mah jongg, and a night of comedy hosted by impresaria extraordinaire Beth Lapides of Un-Cabaret.

Project Mah Jongg was curated and is circulated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York City. Following its debut there, Project Mah Jongg was on display at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland. Following its Skirball run, the exhibition will travel to the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach.


Exhibition Highlights

In the exhibition, visitors will encounter the many accoutrements of mah jongg, including elegant gaming tiles decorated with pictographs derived from Chinese prototypes, scoring cards, rule books, tile racks, and more. Also on view are inventive novelty items that marketers produced in response to the 1920s American mah jongg craze, such as incense, dolls, swizzle sticks, and drumsticks. The exhibition also reveals how the mah jongg hostess was well supplied with thematic décor, even down to her apron and jello molds. Vintage photographs evoke warm memories of mah jongg played at Catskills resorts, Palm Beach poolsides, backyards in the suburbs, and fundraising tournaments.

Specially commissioned for the companion publication, Mah Jongg: Crak, Bam, Dot, original artworks pay homage to the muse of mah jongg. These include fashion designs by Isaac Mizrahi, a “murder mystery” by Maira Kalman (pictured at left), Jewish tile designs by Christophe Niemann, and Bruce McCall’s enigmatic tableau blending ancient China with 1950s Miami.


History and Meanings of Mah Jongg

Said to have been invented in the time of Confucius, the actual origins of mah jongg are unknown. A game of chance and skill akin to gin rummy, it is played by four competitors with sets of tiles made of bone, bamboo, ivory, wood, Bakelite, or Catalin, or eventually, vinyl plastic. The game was imported from China in the early 1920s by an enterprising businessman, Joseph P. Babcock, and quickly became all the rage. With its elaborate rituals and air of exoticism, mah jongg appealed first to the stylish leisure set, but its popularity quickly spread. As exhibition curator Melissa Martens says, “The game delighted players with its beautifully adorned tiles, associations with other lands, and mysterious rules.” Companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Milton Bradley, and Parker Brothers further popularized the game by selling affordable sets across America, setting a craze in motion.

Emblematic of 1920s xenophobia, critics saw mah jongg as both an indicator and instigator of social unrest, but by the 1930s the game had become a staple in Jewish women’s circles. Originally expressive of Jewish social and inclusionist aspirations, the game ultimately was embraced for the camaraderie and comfort it provided. Indeed, it was a group of German Jewish women who founded the National Mah Jongg league in 1937. This not only standardized the game but also created a new form of philanthropy through the sale of the league’s annual rule cards, proceeds from which were earmarked for charitable organizations.

As Jewish life evolved through the twentieth century, mah jongg continued to be an important social activity for Jewish women, played in homes, clubs, vacation spots, and more. Even today, as their mothers and grandmothers continue to play, a new generation is rediscovering the game, often online.


Related Programs

Throughout the run of the exhibition, the Skirball will present an array of related programs designed to bring mah jongg and the world of games to life. For complete details, visit Additional programs may be announced.

  • FAMILY PROGRAM: Kids and grown-ups alike are invited to outdoor game time on the terraces adjacent to the Project Mah Jongg gallery. Games include Chinese checkers, hopscotch, dominoes, Connect Four, and a kid-friendly game using mah jongg tiles. (Saturdays and Sundays, May 19–June 17; Tuesday–Sunday, June 23–September 2 )
  • MAH JONGG CLASS: This eight-session class will teach American mah jongg fundamentals—from the tiles and their function to the “Charleston” and everything in between, including critical basic strategies. (Mondays and Wednesdays, May 30–June 25, 1:00–3:00 p.m.)
  • COMEDY NIGHT: Hosted by Un-Cabaret’s Beth Lapides, the one-night-only engagement “Say the Word: Games People Play” will feature fresh, original stories about winning, losing, and playing by your own rules by some of Hollywood’s top writers, including actor/producer Dan Bucatinsky (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds), actor Wayne Federman (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), and Peter Mehlman (executive producer of Seinfeld). (Friday, June 22, 8:00 p.m.; ages 21 and up only)


Catalogue and Merchandise

The richly illustrated Mah Jongg: Crak, Bam, Dot (2wice Arts Foundation, 2010, 86 pp., paperback, $40), a companion volume to Project Mah Jongg, features insightful essays, photographs, and drawings. It will be available at Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball.

Audrey’s Museum Store will also offer an array of unique and eclectic related merchandise, including National Mah Jongg League 2012 cards, commemorative Project Mah Jongg sets and tile mixers, themed jewelry, items for entertaining and hostess gifts for devoted “mahj” mavens, and Chinese-inspired items for kids and adults alike.






About the Skirball

The Skirball Cultural Center is dedicated to exploring the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals. It welcomes and seeks to inspire people of every ethnic and cultural identity. Guided by our respective memories and experiences, together we aspire to build a society in which all of us can feel at home. The Skirball Cultural Center achieves its mission through educational programs that explore literary, visual, and performing arts from around the world; through the display and interpretation of its permanent collections and changing exhibitions; through an interactive family destination inspired by the Noah’s Ark story; and through outreach to the community.


Visiting the Skirball

The Skirball Cultural Center is located at 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90049. Free on-site parking is available; street parking is strictly prohibited. The Skirball is also accessible by Metro Rapid Bus 761. Museum hours: Tuesday–Friday 12:00–5:00 p.m.; Saturday–Sunday 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.; closed Mondays and holidays. Museum admission: $10 General; $7 Seniors, Full-Time Students, and Children over 12; $5 Children 2–12. Exhibitions are always free to Skirball Members and Children under 2. Exhibitions are free to all visitors on Thursdays. For general information, the public may call (310) 440-4500 or visit The Skirball is also home to Zeidler’s Café, which serves innovative California cuisine in an elegant setting, and Audrey’s Museum Store, which sells books, contemporary art, music, jewelry, and more.


About the Museum of Jewish Heritage

The Museum’s exhibitions educate people of all ages and backgrounds about the rich tapestry of Jewish life over the past century—before, during, and after the Holocaust. Current special exhibitions include Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles, on view through December 2012; Let My People Go!: The Soviet Jewry Movement, 1967–1989, on view through August 5, 2012; and Filming the Camps: John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens: From Hollywood to Nuremberg, on view through October 14, 2012. It is also home to the award-winning Keeping History Center, an interactive visitor experience, and Andy Goldsworthy’s memorial Garden of Stones. The Museum offers visitors a vibrant public program schedule in its Edmond J. Safra Hall and receives general operating support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.



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