As someone of Chinese descent, visitations at my relatives’ would often be filled with the ambiance of clacking mahjong tiles and the loud chatter between family members in Cantonese.
The game consists of a set of 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols, meant to be played amongst 4 individuals. Some regional variations may omit some tiles or add unique ones.
In Malaysia, the most common variation is 3-player mahjong which uses a set of 84 tiles. You’ve likely seen the common acrylic sets with kuih talam looking tiles in green and white, printed with vividly coloured characters and pictures on their top sides.
At an art exhibition to showcase individual passion projects by the team at Studio Red HongYi, full-time designer Kaiyi Wong came up with a mahjong set built from Chengal wood, entitled Myjong.
After it launched, Kaiyi began getting requests from interested buyers to procure the set. Though he didn’t have ready-made ones, prospective customers offered to fund the artist in running the project.
Hence, Kaiyi managed to gather a small pool of funds to create more of his RM3,000 Chengal wood Myjong sets.
Malaysian themed mahjong
The inspiration for Myjong came after Kaiyi’s return from the UK where he completed his Master’s degree in architecture. Moving in with his sister, she introduced him to the Chinese game which became a routine for the siblings’ weekend nights.
While playing, the duo would casually discuss the game’s origins and how it’s circulated in Malaysia, but mostly kept within the local Chinese community.
And they’re not wrong to think so. Most mahjong players usually comprise those of Chinese blood. It can be said that the exclusivity factor of mahjong is due to the visuals printed on its tiles.
Plenty of them have Chinese characters on them, and like the card game Uno, there are certain words players need to shout aloud when certain melds (sets) are formed.
Being a foodie, Kaiyi thought it’d be fun to reimagine mahjong tiles in a Malaysian context so other races could better understand the game.
A portmanteau of the words “Malaysia” and “mahjong”, the visuals on Myjong’s tiles are based on Malaysian motifs. From our local food and art to culture, you may even spot a familiar face in the 84-piece wooden set.
“I do hope people would realise that I am subtly implying the issue of racial segregation that we tend to look away from [in mahjong]. I do hope that one day there will be different races of Malaysians who can sit around the table and play the game while chit-chatting about the beauty and diversity of Malaysia,” stated the 27-year-old.
Shaping the tiles
Kaiyi told Vulcan Post that it took him a rough 2 months to make his Chengal Myjong set. Though the breed of wood carries its own beauty, the fabricating process is painstaking and time-consuming.
Looking for suppliers and dealing with fabricators was challenging for the designer, given that creating original mahjong pieces out of the chosen material hasn’t been done before, to his knowledge.
Additionally, selecting and procuring high-quality Chengal wood cannot be done on a whim either, as details like the wood’s tones and flow of its fibres are taken into account.
“I have to be very selective and attentive on quality control while being aware of the limited budget constraint. Also, I have to credit my working partner Adrian for handling the project for me, I can’t possibly do it all by myself,” explained Kaiyi.
The raw materials are then sent to a carpenter to shape before Kaiyi takes it to his own studio to individually sand down all the rough edges. It would then be prepared to go under the laser where the designs are engraved piece by piece, including the set’s dice.
Finally, all tiles are varnished with a layer of oil to give them a slight sheen.
While working on the completion of the mahjong tiles, Myjong’s box is outsourced to a carpenter who Kaiyi described as being passionate and meticulous about woodwork.
For Myjong’s plywood sets, however, the lead time is cut in half as the process is more straightforward, according to Kaiyi. Apart from outsourcing the woodcutting, the assembly and engraving are done himself which takes about 1 month to complete.
It’s tricky to price art
Sold at RM3,000 for the Chengal wood set and RM1,500 for the plywood option, the average profit Myjong gains from sales is between 5%-10%. With Myjong being an art piece, Kaiyi stated that it was tricky to price such works.
“There is no way to quantify art. For example, the ‘Banana on the wall’ piece is sold for US$120,000,” he exemplified.
“At first, I reckoned I would charge 50% for labour (mostly fabricators) and material costs, while the other 50% would be for my art and innovation—reasonable isn’t it? But sadly, it ended up being 95% for labour and material, while 5% was for art and innovation.”
With Myjong’s aim in making mahjong more inclusive to Malaysians, pricing his sets too high would defeat its intended purpose.
“To be really honest, this is a non-profit project, as the fabrication costs are so high because it is almost 100% handcrafted,” conceded Kaiyi.
Since launching Myjong around 2 months ago, the creative has sold 6 sets in total—1 plywood and 5 Chengal. Early birds who invested in the project were able to get the sets at half-price.
For now, Myjong’s customers range from young to middle-aged adults who are mostly Malaysian Chinese. He has also been getting a few inquiries from overseas customers, though looking for 4-person mahjong sets.
By the end of 2021, Kaiyi hopes to sell more quantities of Myjong’s plywood sets as they’re more affordable for customers.
Education will lead adoption
Kaiyi certainly has a point stating that mahjong is mostly adopted by the Chinese market in Malaysia. However, mahjong in itself isn’t the most accessible game compared to card games like poker, or even chess which is easily portable.
Furthermore, the language barrier it poses doesn’t make it easily understandable for non-Mandarin speakers. But as with any complex gameplays, a level of education and practice would solve these issues.
If Kaiyi hopes to see the aim of his Malaysian-themed mahjong sets come to pass, perhaps hosting intimate sessions to learn the game at board game cafes once it’s safe again could be a good start for the creative.
This would allow interested, potential customers to get hands-on with the sets for a better feel of them and the game, and Kaiyi can take his time to explain the gameplay in a way that’s more interactive and fun than Googling the rules. These experiences would certainly be ones to remember and could lead to higher adoption of the game amongst non-Mandarin speakers.