“It’s a dying art”: Behind the scenes with master Mahjong craftsman Ricky Cheung
The Hong Kong-based master hand carved 432 tiles per day, six days a week, as a young man. Since then, the Mahjong industry has waned in the era of technology. Ricky looks back on a time when the industry boomed, expressing the beauty of the artistry and its intrinsic ties to Hong Kong culture.
At the beginning of 2021, a new Dallas-based mahjong company launched with intentions to “bring mahjong to the stylish masses” and “refresh” the centuries-old game. Titled The Mahjong Line, the company founded by three white women quickly received widespread notoriety across social media, though not to its credit. The brand’s logo boasts a pretty-faced, rosy-cheeked East Asian woman, but beyond this exotic token (wink and all) the reinterpreted game appeared to have lost all traces of its Chinese heritage. Thousands of social media users took to various platforms to express their outrage at the whitewashing of a game which is generally understood as a central pillar of Chinese culture. The Mahjong Line was called out across a global diaspora for its tone-deaf appropriation. As one person wrote: “You threw out thousands of years of culture to make a quick buck,” while another wrote, “My culture is not some cheap colouring book that can be filled in and be ‘made pretty’ by the standards of privileged teenyboppers.”
The Mahjong Line’s “modern makeover” – as described in its press release – was selling its series of westernised mahjong tiles for a whopping sum starting at $325 to $425; a far cry from the democratic reality of the game which is widely played by people of all backgrounds and ages. But along with the tirade of upset raising awareness on why cultural appropriation collectively damages diasporic communities, the outcry also saw an uptick in the appreciation of mahjong’s roots. Part of this celebration shone a light on the traditional craftsmanship of mahjong tiles. A dying art form thanks to industrial machinery, the hand carving of mahjong tiles is a skill dating back to the game’s beginnings in 19th Century China. Using only five basic tools (these are also handmade), craftsmen free-handedly carve calligraphic characters in the ivory-white tiles which are then painted with delicate brush strokes and in perfect uniformity.
It’s a skill that few still practise to this day. But owing to some of our elders who forged their careers in this pre-digital trade, the precision of mahjong carving continues to thrive through a commanding display of speed, accuracy and craftsmanship tied up in a 200-year-old tradition. It’s here that we meet Cheung Sing Chung, otherwise known as Ricky Cheung. Born, raised and still residing in Hong Kong (where the most popular version of mahjong derives) the mahjong carving master began learning the trade at just 13-years-old at his father’s mahjong factory in Hong Kong’s Kowloon City district – Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory.
“It is more than a game with four players in a traditional way of playing. It is an experience in human nature, strategy and interpersonal skills, bringing people happiness as well as being a networking environment.”Ricky Cheung
“Mahjong is deeply rooted in Hong Kong culture,” Ricky tells us, “it is more than a game with four players in a traditional way of playing. It is an experience in human nature, strategy and interpersonal skills, bringing people happiness as well as being a networking environment.” Through thick and thin, the vastly popular game has survived a turbulent history; from Opium Wars to Japanese occupation and British colonial rule. And like many Hong Kong residents, Ricky understands mahjong making as part of its “intangible cultural heritage,” though one that is gradually disappearing with its retiring elders.
He remembers how growing up, there were many people working in the mahjong-making business. Most families had their own sets of hand-carved tiles and during the latter half of the 20th Century, mahjong parlours thronged with visitors from all walks of life, wads of Hong Kong dollars in their back pockets or there to simply meet with friends or family and catch up on the latest gossip. Not only did mahjong tables line the metropolitan streets under cricket-chirping trees, but it was also played at weddings, banquets, family gatherings and traditional holidays (especially the Lunar New Year) in its heyday. It kept the elders’ minds sharp while the young, envious of the seniors’ skill, joined in hoping to one day reach that level of accomplishment. Mahjong was the bridge between generations.
Back then, Ricky’s father’s business supplied much of this industry. It specialised in producing for business partners as opposed to retailers. “We grew up around mahjong,” he remembers, but rather than sharpening his game, he recalls the bustling factory life and the chattering of jade green tiles (mahjong gets its name from this sound as 麻雀 refers to the chattering of sparrows). Ricky laughs saying how “we didn’t have time to play mahjong!” As a curious secondary school student, he would go down to the factory and observe the workers delicately carving tiles, learning the required techniques by eye. And he wasn’t the only one interested in how these green jewels were made, neighbours and friends also came to the factory to find out how the tiles were made, discovering the secrets first hand as the tiles were manufactured, inscribed, polished then painted.
“It truly is a kind of calligraphy created by every master.”Ricky Cheung
Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory was one of the largest manufacturers of mahjong tiles before it closed in 2009. While most mahjong factories are now located on mainland China – where the game originated during the Qing dynasty – when Ricky was a child, the manufacturing process was a family affair. Both his parents and brother worked in the factory while at home, the rooms were littered with mahjong-making tools. He started out his learning journey by practising on old tiles. As a mahjong carver, it’s imperative all tiles are identical otherwise players can cheat using irregular tiles as markers. Focusing on one stroke at a time, the first step in hand carving was to mark the position on the tile. Then, using a sharp tool, the craftsman creates a deep stroke at a sharp angle. No mean feat considering traditional tiles are made of sturdy bamboo, or the more controversial bone or ivory. Once he was skilled in this, Ricky was accustomed to carving a stroke three to four times in order to create the right depth. “It took a lot of effort and patience to make sure the tiles look beautiful,” he says. “It truly is a kind of calligraphy created by every master.”
As his hands moulded to the feeling of tools pressing into the hard tiles, it was three years until Ricky became a professional. He learnt to carve the characters without drafting their position first, an impressive feat considering each tile must be totally identical to the next. “I like to say that carving the tiles is done by hand and by heart,” he says, but really, when you take in the level of difficulty, much of the prowess comes down to patience and practice. Ricky’s father guided his hands throughout the informal apprenticeship. He had moved to Hong Kong from Macau as a youngster, cutting his teeth at one of the largest mahjong retailers on the well-known Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, steadily learning the trade which he would pass down to his son.
Ricky thinks back to the years spent mastering the craft, calling it “indeed a very boring learning process” consisting of endless repetition inscribing the 144 tiles that make a full set. With five different kinds of tiles that make this up, there are three suits: dots, bamboo and characters; honour tiles engraved with the Chinese character for north, south, east, west and more; and the beautiful bonus tiles decorated in three alternating colours and featuring illustrations of local foliage and pictorial visualisations of the four seasons.
The most challenging aspect of the process was not the intricacy of the patterns, however, nor the polishing, painting or packaging. For Ricky, the hardest part involved the philosophy behind the manufacturing. As he puts it, “using yin and yang, complementary rather than opposing forces to do the hand carving.” In ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang is the concept of dualism. It represents how seemingly contrasting or opposite forces may in fact complement one another. It explains how two forces that appear wholly incompatible on one hand, like black and white, can in fact be interconnected in the natural world. In this way, black cannot exist without white and vice versa. One may give rise to the other much like the anima and animus, the sun and moon, north and south magnetic poles, summer and winter.
Just like these examples, a similar kind of balance exists in human movement. In Tai Chi or Kung Fu, for example, practices similarly predicated on ancient Chinese philosophy, the concept of yin and yang is omnipresent. Tension is yang whereas relaxation is yin. The body should not be too stiff in order for blood and energy to circulate. It should also not be too soft or the movement becomes empty and void of intention. When yin and yang are balanced, true Tai Chi occurs. Chi (also spelt qi) is the vital life force that runs through all living beings, from plankton in the depths of the ocean to the tender new shoots of bamboo. In turn, in Chinese philosophy, Tai Chi refers to the ultimate source and limit of reality, from which spring yin and yang and all of creation.
There are three pillars that inform ancient Chinese society – Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism – and later, Legalism and Mohism, which informed the shape of society as far back as 1600 BC. The root of this ideology stems from cyclicity, an observation of cycles as seen through the seasons, night and day and so on – ideas that seep into mahjong’s gameplay not only through what the tiles represent but also on the formation of its movement, its psychology, strategy and goals. The I Ching is widely understood as the most important document describing these ancient cosmological and philosophical systems, systems that are innate to both Chinese and Hong Kong culture. And for Ricky, these ideas also carry through to the way he mindfully plies his tools. By enacting yin and yang while crafting the tiles, his arm doesn’t get tired quickly. He’s learnt how to move so the seemingly solid tiles yield to the power of the blade. Two forces that seem opposite are in fact interconnected and can succumb to one another. It’s a crucial aspect in the tile making process that allowed him, at his peak, to hand carve three full sets of mahjong tiles (432 tiles in total) every day, six days a week.
“Since it’s too difficult to learn and requires many years to polish the skills, it is very hard to pass on the skills – it’s a dying art indeed.”Ricky Cheung
For Ricky, there is a deep relationship between how the game is played and the manufacturing process. By using hand-carved sets, the player’s game is more intuitive as they can distinguish a tile purely by running a thumb over the engraved strokes. Whereas nowadays, mahjong sets tend to be laser cut or digitally printed or even played online. As industrial methods of mass production swept Hong Kong in the 90s, many manufacturing lines moved to the low-cost lands of mainland China and the local industry was greatly impacted. “A lot of people lost their jobs since the 2000s,” says Ricky. As a result, the trade faltered and today, “only a few hand carvers remain active in Hong Kong,” says Ricky. “Since it’s too difficult to learn and requires many years to polish the skills, it is very hard to pass on the skills – it’s a dying art indeed.”
Though the amount of mahjong players has dwindled in the digital age, recent years have seen a new resurgence, mainly from overseas. It’s a trend Ricky has picked up on, saying, “people appreciate our way to preserve mahjong craftsmanship and want to own a genuine set of mahjong with authentic values.” From embroidery to rug making, ceramics, knitting and needlework, craft, in general, has seen a resurgence as communities increasingly seek out one-off handmade goods as opposed to machine-made duplicates. Ricky continues: “Now, there are a lot of people keen to buy traditional mahjong tiles as collectable items to pass on to the next generation.” And while the master retired in 2018, he still manages to carve a few sets per month, assuring us that “indeed, there are a lot of people both locally and overseas in the queue.”
Preserving the traditional craftsmanship is a family business for the Cheung’s. Ricky’s daughter, Karen, spends much of her time keeping the story alive through the art brand Karen Aruba Art, encouraging younger generations to learn its value alongside the Hong Kong story and culture. Last year, the father and daughter duo launched The Art of Mahjong Craft, an initiative that raises further awareness of the authenticity and sustainability of handmade mahjong tiles. Since then, they’ve witnessed a tumult of interest, not just in players but locals who are “keen to retain their traditional Hong Kong identity and culture as a modern society.”
“Mahjong is still associated with family and friends, one of the most important values in Asian cultures, and as it is commonly played by both young and old together, it is the ideal way to bring people and happiness together.”Ricky Cheung
It remains to be a game unlike any other in the world both in its underlying concepts and its rich cultural significance. “Although there are different variations of mahjong in different countries, with rules changing over time to suit local tastes,” Ricky goes on to say, “mahjong is still associated with family and friends, one of the most important values in Asian cultures, and as it is commonly played by both young and old together, it is the ideal way to bring people and happiness together.” Keeping the spirit of the practice alive, he hopes Hong Kong mahjong garners more international appreciation for its craft, and the fading skills are preserved in turn.
As our interview comes to an end, on a final note Ricky ends with gratitude: “Thank you,” he says, “for everyone who treasures our old skills and experience.”
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.