May 5, 2010

Project Mah Jongg

                            Illustration by Christoph Niemann for Mah Jongg: Crak, Bam, Dot, a 2wice Books publication

We opened Project Mah Jongg earlier in the week.  It was, by far, the most fun we have had at any Museum opening and included the debut of a commissioned cocktail, the Mah Jongg Martini.  I include below an excerpt from my remarks at the opening which address why we decided to do this exhibition.

I will admit that the reaction to the news that we were doing an exhibition about mah jongg was different than what we normally get. I am quite frankly not used to people laughing when I tell them about forthcoming projects. In the case of Project Mah Jongg, the typical conversation would go something like this:
Museum Director: “You know, we are preparing an exhibition about the game of mah jongg?
Museum Supporter (or just about anyone I would meet): [giggle] “You’re kidding me…”
And so it would go, one after another.

More often than not, however, their next comment would be something like, “I remember my mother used to play….” It became wonderfully clear very quickly that this project tapped a rich vein of nostalgia and warm memories and has proven itself to fit squarely within the mission of this Museum.

Perhaps more than any other we have undertaken, this exhibition proves that this Museum is much more about life than death. To be sure, there is a tragic history at the center of the history we present here, but the context that surrounds that history is animated by the full range of human activity and is stamped by a decided focus on vibrancy, and continuity, and, yes, joy.

In this exhibition, we explore what might be called “small history” – we do not examine world events or the actions of great men and women (the Morgenthau exhibition does that). In this exhibition, rather, we focus on the history that we all take part in, the history that defines our lives. We provide in this jewel of an exhibition a slice of Jewish history that was common to so many. And we also take a look at how history is transmitted. After all, games are about much more than simple play; they are carriers of identity, fantasy, and cultural memory, and they are important vehicles for community building and togetherness. The mah jongg game was a key opportunity for Jewish women to share stories, eat and gossip together, engage in a unique and generous philanthropy, and create life-long bonds.

As new generations learn the game today, it serves as a connector to past generations and to the memories of our mothers and grandmothers. I know that as visitors take in this exhibition, many will recall profound moments in their lives, or a time in their lives, or a person long gone but somehow still near. There is no more powerful history than that which can connect us to such potent memories.

As exhibitions go, the history of Project Mah Jongg is remarkably short. Indeed, we normally mark exhibition development in glacial time -- this one took a New York Minute --- from start to finish, about six months. But in those six months, the stars aligned just so – bringing together a constellation of remarkable talent and good will that one can only dream about.

Then I went on to thank Melissa Martens, the brilliant curator of the exhibition and Abbott Miller of Pentagram, who designed it, and my Deputy, Ivy Barsky, who oversaw the entire project.  And I thanked New York Magazine for being our media partner, and Sylvia Hassenfeld for her financial support, and Ruth Unger and the National Mah Jongg League for their significant financial contribution as well as the remarkable work they have done throughout the years to preserve the game and the wonderful role it played and plays in the lives of so many.


Sylvia said...


I live in Queens and am an extreme Mah Jongg lover and player! I've even won some tournaments in Atlantic City in the past couple of years. Mah Jongg is sure having a resurgence! I was elated when the Queens Theatre in the Park produced "The Men of Mah Jongg" in December of '08, a great comedy about 4 older Jewish men discovering the game. I brought all my Mah Jongg ladies (about 15 of us) to see it and they laughed and cried! And now, your wonderful exhibit that we attended the other day was absolutely fantastic. Everything about it reminded me of growing up in Queens, watching my mother playing Mah Jongg on our dining room table. Bravo! Good thing the exhibit runs until January 2011. I have to tell the rest of the ladies to get over to "Project Mah Jongg!"

Shirley said...

My cousin Sylvia told me about this blog and how she visited "Project Mah Jongg" last week and was totally enthralled with the exhibit. Some would say I’m very fortunate to live in Beverly Hills, but I would give my eye teeth to come to New York and see the exhibit, however, finances being what they are, I really cannot afford to. I had e-mailed “Project Mah Jongg” curator Melissa Martens and asked her if the exhibit will be coming to California anytime soon. She answered back that they are hoping the exhibit will travel to California by 2011-2012. That would be great if it did as we have thousands upon thousands of Mah Jongg aficionados here. I had told Ms. Martens that I was back in NY for Christmas of 2008 when my cousin Sylvia and I and a large group of Mah Jongg ladies went to see a fabulous play called "The Men of Mah Jongg" at a large theatre at the World’s Fair Complex in Flushing Queens. It was a fantastic play about four guys from Manhattan (Jewish of course) discovering the game, or hiding it from the rest of the community because of the stigma behind women playing the game. Ms. Martens said in a follow-up e-mail that she had not seen the play but was very interested in it. And now I hear the play is coming to Beverly Hills in September. I could have saved the airfare to New York and waited for the play to come to me! Agh! Oh well. Christmas in New York is a fabulous time to visit and we had a great time! After I received the e-mail from Ms. Martens, I had another discussion with my cousin Sylvia who told me surprisingly that the Museum of Jewish Heritage has a theatre with a couple hundred seats or so. Both Sylvia and I almost thought of the same idea simultaneously. What a great thing to have the play running during the exhibit since it will be there until January I believe. I used to be in PR and marketing, so I’m always thinking of ideas, though I’m very happily retired now. Nevertheless, best of luck with “Project Mah Jongg” and I hope beyond hope it travels to Beverly Hills before I’m too old to enjoy it!

Shirl Hollister-Nussbaum

Michael said...


I am a retired lawyer from Manhattan who relocated to Atlanta because the majority of my extended family settled there and I wanted to be closer to them in my retirement and not have to travel so far to visit. During my many years as a resident of New York City, I was involved with both a weekly, Wednesday night poker game (when I could fit it into my busy legal schedule) as well as a weekend Bridge Club which I thoroughly enjoyed. I bring this up because in January of this year, a show called “The Men of Mah Jongg” played at the Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell, a suburb of Atlanta. I actually live about 40 minutes from Roswell. The play’s title, “The Men of Mah Jongg” enticed me as I always believed Mah Jongg to be a ladies game, and seeing that I was an avid poker and bridge fanatic, the game of Mah Jongg held some fascination as I knew the game was derived from card games dating back hundreds of years, in locales somewhere in Asia. My wife was traveling with some of her girlfriends to Italy at the time, so I decided to call up the guys and go see “The Men of Mah Jongg.” I have to say, living in New York City all those years, I was accustomed to Broadway caliber shows, but the “Mah Jongg Men” in Atlanta felt like it should be playing Broadway more than just a regional production in Atlanta as it was that good! My friends George, Harvey, Paul and I had a great time at the show and it really made us want to explore the game of Mah Jongg further. Since my heart still lies in Manhattan, I read the New York Times religiously and came across the archived article by Steven Heller in the times that led me to your blog on “Project Mah Jongg” in addition to the fact that two other ladies on the blog mentioned the exhibit in correlation with the play “The Men of Mah Jongg.” That was enough for me to write in about my experiences with bridge, poker and Mah Jongg and since the guys and I are fascinated now with the game of Mah Jongg, we’re working into booking a trip to the Big Apple to check out “Project Mah Jongg” as well as look up my old Bridge Club on 73rd Street. The Carnegie Deli, a Yankee game and “Project Mah Jongg!” What more could a person ask for!

Anna said...

Just got back from visiting Project Mah Jongg and meeting with the Manager of the Museum Shop.

There are over 90 million players worldwide and what most people do not realize is that most of them are men!! After all, the game was started by men in China. Between Project Mah Jongg and the wonderful new play by Richard Atkins "The Men of Mah Jongg" the game is enjoying a wonderful resurgence. Anna Rosen-Jupiter, FL

GillianHatcher said...

Hi, my name is Gillian. I wanted to introduce myself and get the word out a little. I stumbled upon an article about your exhibit in early May and was over joyed that we might hopefully be a part of something great (I kind of made it a secret goal)!
I fully understand how you felt at the beginning of this project because, you see, I've had a similar experience.
About a year ago, my business partner (now) and very good friend, who happens to be Jewish is a huge lover of Mah Jongg! When she introduced me to the game I loved it! Though I don't get to play much, I really enjoy learning about the traditions and meaning behind the game.
Last year for her birthday I made her a couple pieces of jewelry using "tile" beads I found, she loved them!
About 9 months ago, she blessed me with the opportunity to start a line and design/create pieces that mean more to me than most would ever understand. My hands touch each piece I make; whether that translates to our clients or not, it has serious meaning for me. I feel like we are now part of this rich history and that can never be taken! This business has been a real labor of hope, love and perseverance! (there have also been lots of giggles) We absolutely embrace the cultural and historical significance of the game and we've worked exceptionally hard on developing products that celebrate Mahj and are functional and beautiful, while being affordable. has lots of things to offer but most importantly we want to spread the ideal that Mah Jongg has taken an exceptional part in uniting cultures and generations!
I personally, more than appreciate what you have done in helping bring new light to a game that has so much meaning, for me and many others. What you have done is help us have a chance to do what we do.
I wish you all the best and can't wait to see the exhibit in person! If you'd like, I invite you to have a look at our life's work and the time spent on the making Mah Jongg fresh and appealing for future/present/past generations.
Hope to see you soon! :)

Thank You so much for the attention.
Gillian Hatcher