Mah Jongg makes a comeback

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Vintage mah jongg tiles. Courtesy Museum of Jewish Heritage

Its early origins are unclear (but just may date back to the time of Confucius), but the popularity of Mah Jongg in this country is tied to the twenties and thirties, when ladies convened around colorful game boards to gossip, eat, gamble, and play. Starting this week, you can learn about the “game of sparrows” (so-called because of the click-clack of the tile pieces that are key to the game), see vintage sets and related paraphernalia (Jell-o molds, anyone?) and even play at the Skirball Cultural Center’s Project Mah Jongg (imported from the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.)

There’s even a soundscape by Timothy Nohe, which we excerpt throughout this interview with the local curator, Erin Clancey. During a preview walk-through of the exhibit last week, she talked about the stylish, worldliness of those who played Mah Jongg earlier in the last century– and said our obsession with all things retro (Mad Men, anyone?) is contributing to an resurgence of the game now. “It is a bit complex, but once you learn it is so fun,” she said. “The imagery is beautiful, there’s something exciting and exotic about the game, and it really is about community.”