Director claps back at company accused of cultural appropriation

A director and screenwriter took subtle shots at a Dallas company that was recently accused of cultural appropriation after trying to “reinvent” the game of mahjong.

On Jan. 5, Yulin Kuang, who created the short-lived series I Ship It, took to Twitter to share a 12-second video of her grandma’s high-tech mahjong table. The video shows a woman press a button on the panel in the center of the table before four rows of tiles magically appear in perfect alignment. In the background, another woman says in Cantonese, “Wow, it’s so fun to play!”

In sharing the video, Kuang simply tweeted, “Cleansing the timeline with my grandma’s mahjong table.”

The tweet, which has been liked more than 149,000 times, appears to be in response to the backlash a Dallas company received. Launched by Kate LaGere, Annie O’Grady and Bianca Watson in November 2020, The Mahjong Line initially claimed on its website that it aimed “to bring Mahjong to the stylish masses” after LaGere felt that “the venerable game needed a respectful refresh.”

With the help of Dallas-based O&H Brand, the company created color-soaked tiles with designs based on three categories: Minimal, Botanical and Cheeky. The tile sets range between $325 and $425.

But news of the company’s products did not sit well with many members of the Asian American community, who accused the business’ founders of culturally appropriating a game from China that dates back to the Qing dynasty. Experts believe the origins of mahjong can be traced to the 1800s, when the game was highly popular in Shanghai. (U.S.-born Shanghai resident Joseph P. Babcock later introduced the game to the West, creating a modified set of rules and giving English names to the tiles in the process.)

Many people took to social media to slam The Mahjong Line for suggesting that the game needed an upgrade at all.

“My culture is one of the oldest civilizations in the world,” one Twitter user wrote. “It is a product of thousands of years of tradition and history. My culture not some cheap coloring book that can be filled-in and be ‘made pretty’ by the standards of privileged teenyboppers.”

“This is extremely disrespectful and racist to my culture,” another added. “Profiting off of 400+ years of Chinese history that dates all the way back to the Qing dynasty is WRONG. It doesn’t need a ‘respectful refresh’ and it certainly doesn’t need your ugly ass designs.”

Though Kuang did not directly call the company out, she did take the opportunity to share more insight into the video she posted. In a Twitter thread, she wrote that her cousin and her aunt taught her how to play mahjong on her paternal grandma’s table in Taishan.

“I’d been invited to a [Chinese New Year] mahjong potluck with some cool Asian ladies I admire & I didn’t want to embarrass myself by admitting I didn’t know how to play,” she tweeted.

Kuang, whose grandma died when she was in high school, added that she had not been in touch with her Chinese heritage until 10 years ago.

“My grandma died when I was in high school, back when I was in my peak selfish teen years,” she posted. “I didn’t study Chinese and let my language skills get rusty to the point of total disuse, so 嫲嫲 [paternal grandma in Chinese] and I weren’t really able to communicate before she died.”

The director explained that her cousin eventually told her about their grandma’s hobby. In the following years, Kuang took interest in learning more about Chinese culture.

“I didn’t even know she played mahjong, until my cousin told me that she taught him,” she wrote of her grandma. “It’s only been in the last decade that I’ve started to embrace the things that I neglected back then – how to speak the language, how to cook, and how to play mahjong.”

After explaining that the mahjong potluck party “was one of the last big group outings I went to in 2020” and that she won several rounds of mahjong by using her grandma’s strategy, Kuang ended her thread with a photo of her favorite piece of art — along with a call to action.

“If this thread has made you curious about mahjong, I encourage you to practice cultural appreciation and not appropriation by seeking out mahjong sets and tutorials created by Chinese or Chinese American folks,” she wrote.

The Mahjong Line has since acknowledged the criticism, offering an apology on its Instagram account.

“While our intent is to inspire and engage with a generation of American mahjong players, we recognize our failure to pay proper homage to the game’s Chinese heritage,” part of the company’s statement read. “Using words like ‘refresh’ were hurtful to many and we are deeply sorry.”

If you found this story insightful, read about Dawang, the brand that fuses traditional Chinese fabrics with Western aesthetics.

More from In The Know:

Chinese Congolese singer Zhong Feifei is a symbol of growing diversity in China

These $4 Asian dish starter kits make meals that taste better than takeout

9 Asian Americans leaving an impact on the fashion and beauty industry

Here’s how to make dumplings

Listen to the latest episode of our pop culture podcast, We Should Talk: