Is this 'Respectful Refresh' of Mahjong Cultural Appropriation?

By Barnaby Lofton, January 6, 2021

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A Dallas-based company, called The Mahjong Line came under fire on the internet this week for its tone-deaf copy and narrative surrounding its customized mahjong sets.

According to the About Us page (which now has been re-edited), one of the founders Kate LaGere felt that “traditional [Chinese] tiles... did not reflect the fun that was had when playing with her friends,” and that “nothing came close to mirroring her style and personality.” She then enlisted two of her friends, Annie O’Grady and Bianca Watson, to help develop their own “respectful refresh” of mahjong, something which many have deemed as ‘cultural appropriation.’ For a proper definition of the phrase, we turn to the folks at verywellmind.com:

“Cultural appropriation refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn’t respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, or reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression.”

Screen-Shot-2021-01-06-at-10.36.54-AM.jpg
The sets on offer. Screengrab via The Mahjong Line

tiles.jpg
Traditional mahjong set. Image via Taobao

The Mahjong Line released five limited-edition sets last November that sell at a whopping USD325-425, while a quick search on Taobao shows sets starting at RMB30 (around USD5). The creative agency behind the redesign of the centuries-old game has also quickly distanced itself from the controversy. On their website, a pop-up message reads, 

“We are deeply and sincerely sorry for the role we played in the creation of The Mahjong Line tiles and brand. There was a clear lack of awareness, cultural appreciation and respect on our part during our design process. We own that and apologize for it. We must do better, and we are taking steps to educate ourselves so that we do not make these types of mistakes again. We have also begun the process of researching ways to learn from the Asian-American community in our city and region so that we can better understand, respect and honor it moving forward. We have also terminated our relationship with The Mahjong Line. While our apology can not change the work we did, we humbly ask for the opportunity to improve both as a company and as individuals moving forward.”

Many outlets have covered the unraveling story such as The CutNBC News and, of course, Twitter. If you’d like to read the Mahjong Line’s half-baked apology on Instagram, click here

Would you buy these sets? We’ll leave that up to you.

[Cover image via The Mahjong Line]

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