The good news is, you don’t need to be part of a Hong Kong family to get in on the action.
Dim Sum Library — a new restaurant in the Admiralty District’s Pacific Place Mall, near Central — provides a contemporary atmosphere with cocktails and upscale dim sum.
At the back end of the restaurant, diners enter into a new-school mahjong parlor that’s outfitted with Chinoiserie-style decor and, of course, square tables for groups of four.
“Every Hong Konger grows up with mahjong tiles stuck to their fingers,” says David Yeo, founder of the Aqua Restaurant Group, behind Dim Sum Library.
“The game has been played in Hong Kong for hundreds of years and passed down from generation to generation, bringing people together over tea and snacks.”
In addition to all-day access to the restaurant’s mahjong tables, Yeo says the restaurant will soon introduce mahjong classes aimed at locals, English speakers, as well as young Hongkongers — anyone who is looking to learn.
“It’s part of the DNA of this city — it’s part of most family traditions,” says Yeo. “I really wanted to keep this tradition alive.”
Joy Luck Club 2.0
In some circles, mahjong is not just alive — but thriving.
A luxury fashion brand and marketing consultant, Caroline Roberts says she’s played with limited-edition mahjong sets from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Shanghai Tang — the latter retails for over US$5,000.
“[Playing mahjong] is actually quite a chic habit,” says Roberts, who hosts regular mahjong nights at the Dim Sum Library for her “Elite Joy Luck Club” — mainly for English speakers.
The game, she says, is popular among professionals who are looking for healthy outlets and fresh ways to exercise their brain.
Roberts started playing mahjong when she was about five years old — a favorite family pastime during weekends and holidays.
“I want to promote mahjong as an important part of the Chinese culture,” says Roberts.
“Most expats may not have time to become fluent in Cantonese, but perhaps they can learn how to play mahjong while they are living in Hong Kong.”
A more complicated version of gin rummy, mahjong sees a group of four players huddled around a table for hours at a time.
Players pick up and discard tiles to coordinate pairs, trios, and runs of a suit in sequence.
The rules vary across Asia, but in Hong Kong, each player starts with 13 tiles and the goal is to develop a 14-card hand using every tile in a combination of pongs, eyes and runs.
Specialty tiles, such as flowers and dragons, make it more complicated, but beginners can disregard these tiles until they get the hang of the basics.
When a player has a winning hand, they shout “mahjong!” — or commonly “sik woo” (meaning “eat pudding”) — to end the round and tally up points.