Mahjong is a popular pastime deeply ingrained in Hong Kong society. Although there are many variations, the basic principles of mahjong involve four players drawing and discarding from a pool of tiles in turn to form melds and a pair. The tiles are designed and named after monetary units in ancient China, including coins, strings of cash, and myriads of money. Times have changed, but the popularity of mahjong seems eternal, both in artistic works and everyday life.
The game is rarely played without the involvement of money, especially when played with relatives and friends. The winner of a game is typically awarded cash depending on the fan of his tiles, which reflects the rarity of his winning hand and the difficulty in reaching it. Though frowned upon by some, in general mahjong is still a morally acceptable way to earn a few ‘quick bucks’ and spend some quality time with everyone else. It’s not uncommon to find four friends spending hours playing game after game, with the hopes of winning several hundred dollars – at the risk of losing it all!
Due to its close ties with money, one can observe many interesting facets of money at the mahjong table. In substitution of actual cash, many prefer transacting game rewards with plastic tokens or recording wins with electronic tallying systems. At the end of the day, the players will summarize their gains or losses and settle them once and for all. Digital payment systems are growing increasingly popular for their convenience, while another popular treatment would involve noting debts, where the loser can hopefully repay them in the foreseeable future.
There are also many mahjong superstitions associated with making money and getting lucky. For instance, one may look for seats with the best feng shui or wear lucky garments. Certain tiles, like Fat Choi (發), symbolize wealth and riches. These rituals serve the traditional Chinese enthusiasm for getting rich and wealthy, which also explains mahjong’s immense popularity during Chinese New Year.
At first glance, the sport of mahjong may seem like an utter waste of money – a pure game of luck with some element of skill, a high-risk-high-reward gamble, and wholly economically unproductive. However, in another sense, the money involved in mahjong serves an extensive purpose beyond simply a measure of wealth. Like many traditional customs, the transfer of money in a game of leisure establishes and strengthens the bonds and relationships between players, leaving behind a tail for further interactions. For most mahjong players, accumulating wealth is only a side product – money is instead used as a channel to bring them closer to one another and to earn future support and favours. Money is intended to create a unifying effect among strangers through a series of transactions and interactions.
Even in modern times, mahjong still plays an important role in Hong Kong society, and can perhaps provide some valuable insight on how money works in this metropolitan city.