Green Tile Social Club Is Making Sure a New Generation of Asian Americans Fall in Love with Mahjong
It’s about more than just a winning hand.
On a sweltering July evening in New York City, the Lower East Side’s Bobblehaus transforms from a trendy retail store into a cacophony of washing tiles and exclamations of “Sik wu!”
Once a month at the Asian American-owned clothing shop, racks are traded for a dozen, intimate four-top tables and a diverse group of 20-something New Yorkers gather to play mahjong with the Green Tile Social Club.
Fresh off its first birthday, the Green Tile Social Club has quickly cemented itself as the leader in a new wave of mahjong players. With no membership required, participants are able to drop by lively weekend and weekday gatherings around the city to learn and play the tile-based game known as China’s national pastime for 200 years.
At the helm of this operation is a crew of young Texas-natives, Ernest Chan, Grace Liu, Joanne Xu, and Sarah Teng. Although they knew of each other back home, the group of four formed a close friendship with one another once they all moved to New York City.
“Ernie posted on his story that he was looking for New York friends to play mahjong with,” reminisces Teng. “It started off with Grace, Ernie, and I playing with another friend at my apartment, but then our friend moved away and we had an empty seat. That’s when I DM’d Joanne.”
It was this initial hang that made them realize how much the four had in common. “We shared a desire to reconnect with our culture,” recounts Chan. “It’s a universal story for young Asian Americans that we, as young adults, are now trying to find agency and rediscover our identity,” adds Xu.
From there, the idea of expanding their mahjong meetups to connect with more like-minded New Yorkers sprung to life. “We were talking about how we knew a lot of people that wanted to play, but didn’t know how or didn’t necessarily have people to play with,” says Teng.
Although a handful of mahjong clubs exist in New York City, the unique idea behind Green Tile Social Club is to create a community for younger players. “People can associate mahjong with something that you mainly play with your family, your aunties and uncles, during the holidays,” says Liu. “What we wanted to create wasn’t something that existed yet.”
The Green Tile Social Club shows no signs of slowing down. With more than 200 participants per event, the bread and butter of the organization are the monthly Sunday meetups. Free and open to the public, only an online RSVP is required to show up for four hours of play. It’s here that Chan, Liu, Xu, and Teng showcase their knowledge of Cantonese-style mahjong during the teaching hours.
“We teach open-handed, which means you can see everyone’s cards on the table,” explains Teng. “That helps [you] learn faster because you understand how to play strategically.” To assuage as much anxiety from newcomers as possible, “We make a big emphasis on teaching in a way that’s easily digestible and we make sure that the environment is safe for everyone to mess up or be a little slow or not remember everything,” comments Liu.
For those who currently find themselves Googling ‘How do you play mahjong?’, here’s a basic rundown. Each game requires four players, 144 tiles (which are adorned with a Chinese symbol or character on one side), and two dice. Highest roll of the dice decides who plays first. Three players then pick 13 tiles from the shuffled deck of tiles on the table, while the dealer (or winner of the dice roll) chooses 14. Players line up their chosen tiles, the remaining tiles are left in the middle of the table, and game play begins. The dealer discards their first tile and from there players take turns drawing and discarding one tile at a time. In order to win a game of mahjong, a player must form four suits and a pair—four sets of three of the same tiles plus one more set of two of the same tiles. When a player achieves a ready hand (aka builds four suits and a pair), they call out “Sik wu” or “Hu le” and the game is over.
In other words, “It’s kind of like poker meets spoons,” says Chan. “In the way that players equate the set of tiles to a deck of cards, suits to suits,” adds Xu.
More experienced players can opt for the Green Tile Social Club’s ticketed events—which don’t have a teaching hour—like the monthly After Hours meetups at Bobblehaus on the Lower East Side or the surprise events that pop up at local Asian American-owned businesses.
The beauty of the Green Tile Social Club is multifaceted. Chan, Liu, Xu, and Teng are responsible for creating a space that has the ability to bridge the gap between older and younger generations of Asian Americans. For those who grew up watching their elders playing, being a part of the mahjong world is a way to keep this vibrant part of their community alive. On the other hand, the club offers inquisitive New Yorkers, who might have grown up without much or any exposure to Asian and Asian American culture, the opportunity to learn and connect.
“[Green Tile Social Club] goes to show that you can be a part of it—the Asian American experience. You don’t have to know Chinese 100% or be close with an extensive Chinese family,” says Liu. “You can play and through that, find connection to your roots.”
The founders of Green Tile Social Club share the sentiment of wanting to, “Deepen our roots within the existing Asian American community [in New York City] and collaborate with more cultural institutions in Chinatown,” according to Xu. “To recognize the people, entrepreneurs, community organizers, and activists that have shaped this community.”
Simply put, the future is full of hope for this inspired crew of four.