Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Annelise Heinz's "Mahjong"

Annelise Heinz is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oregon, where she teaches courses on women's history, gender and sexuality, ethnicity and immigration, and consumerism. She returned to the West Coast in fall 2018, after three years as a faculty member at the University of Texas at Dallas. She earned her doctorate at Stanford University in 2015.

Heinz applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture, and reported the following:
Page 99 takes the reader into debates over if and how mahjong players in the United States should use “flower” tiles as a kind of wild card during play, and how that debate relates to a larger key historical transformation of mahjong in America: the feminization of mahjong into a game primarily associated with women. Page 99 also covers the contentious meetings of a mahjong standardization committee led by white women and Chinese men, and how white male game experts responded.

This page surfaces some of the key concepts that the book grapples with: gender, race, authenticity, authority. In the early 1920s, the Chinese parlor game mahjong became a huge national fad as marketers emphasized its “exotic” Chinese origins. Despite the game’s mostly male background – from its masculine connotations in China, to the white businessmen who introduced it to an American public, and the mostly male game experts who helped popularize it – mahjong quickly became known as a women’s game in the United States, feminized by its clear cultural associations with China. This transformation offers a particularly clear example of the ways in which ideas of race intertwine with gender.

One of the key ways that marketers helped popularize mahjong, and also one of the major arenas they battled it out with each other, emphasized claims to authenticity. I trouble any simple meaning of authenticity, locating it in the history of Orientalism that the history of mahjong is also embedded in, while also tracing how Chinese Americans used claims on authenticity to create both economic opportunities and assert cultural authority.

Mahjong traces the story of one game to think about how, in their daily lives, individuals create and experience cultural change. Throughout the book, I follow the often-colorful characters who created an enormous international fad based on the game in the early 1920s, and who fostered diverse social patterns and cultural rituals in its wake. On page 99, a few of these individuals surface – some who run throughout the book, and others who connect to larger themes but who make only a brief appearance. It also reveals the debates that swirled around mahjong during the fad years, and how seriously game experts and marketers took the financial and cultural stakes. One of the arguments in the book is that this leisure activity – easily overlooked and dismissed – reveals much about key transformations in the twentieth century, including changing gender roles, mass consumerism, and the development of ethnic identities.
Visit Annelise Heinz's website.

--Marshal Zeringue