When I was little, I used to play Mahjong with my family. It was a Christmas tradition, as familar as Brussell sprouts, the recycled tree from Woolworths, paper bunting and My Fair Lady on the TV.
Now in Lockdown, many of us are turning to the humble board game for entertainment.
Our Mahjong set came from China. It’s a small treasure chest. Each oblong tile is hand carved from bone and bamboo. This would rightly be forbidden today, but, as a child, I didnt think about that. I held each light piece in my hand and turned them over, in wonder. They felt strangely cool to touch. Polished and smooth with mysterious images carved on the top of each piece. Colourful flowers, winds and circles.
For me at the time, the pleasure came more from imagining the journey that this set been on. I was never competitive and winning the game had less interest for me than collecting my favourite tiles. The game is played with four players and there were five of us in my family. I would share a seat with my Dad and hope that he collected the dragons. He let me place each tile on the rack. My imagination would take flight again, staring at the winged creatures. The dragon is revered in China, a symbol of wisdom and power. A kind creature, rather than the fiery, village scorching Western type. They’re also a Chinese symbol of luck, but I don’t remember how many times Dad won. He was probably slowed down by my incessant questions and by the port and mince pies.
The set was brought back to the UK by my paternal Grandfather who was in the Merchant Navy. I had never met him. He died when I was very young. To me, he was an enigmatic, intrepid explorer. A faceless, fearless man who had carried home a small mahogany box now sitting on our orange, swirly carpet at home. A puzzle shrouded in a secret history. A land of curious, exotic characters.
The box itself is embossed with a large , emerald green Chinese character. The opening panel is tricky. There’s a knack to it. As it falls open, it reveals neat trays of tiles. I used to always be in a rush to choose my favourite tray, jostling with my older, lanky brother and sister.
I didn’t notice then that each tile was also carved with Western numbers. Maybe this little work of art, this prize had been mass produced before it was shipped across the world.
But I didn’t know that then and it doesn’t matter now.
Being aware hasn’t stolen its magic.