Winning over young fans

Mahjong players these days can be as young as teenagers and some even get their sets customised

Miss Joanna Sim, 19, who will be entering university in August, has always been interested in learning how to play mahjong.

But it was only last year that she picked up the game from her sister Rachelle, 20.

Staying home during the circuit breaker last year, the two sisters and their parents turned a weekly game of mahjong into a family bonding activity. They even created a scoreboard to see who was the ultimate winner from their sessions.

"Since my family members had a lot of time to spend with one another, we needed to find an activity that would engage all of us," says Miss Sim. "Besides, given that my sister and I are both older now, the typical family board game wouldn't cut it."

Often thought of as an "old people's" game, mahjong has gained new popularity among the young, especially during the pandemic.

A slew of mahjong interest groups catering to the young have sprung up online in recent years.

There are at least 12 groups for mahjong players in Singapore. Some have close to 10,000 members and serve as a forum for people to ask questions about the rules of the game, share tile combinations or find new mahjong kakis (friend in Malay).

Polytechnic student Lim Chuan Xun, 18, has seen more youth uploading photos of their mahjong sessions on social media platforms such as Instagram since 2019.

"You would naturally be interested in what your friends are doing and want to try," he says.

Mr Lim, who picked up mahjong at 15 from his father, says he rushes through his assignments on weekdays so he can devote his weekends to the game.

He has been playing every week throughout the pandemic as more of his peers have picked up the game.

  • Play it safe

  • With more young people picking up mahjong, what should lovers of the game be mindful of so as to keep on the right side of the law?

    Responding to queries from The Sunday Times, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) notes that, under the Common Gaming Houses Act (CGHA), gambling conducted in public places is a criminal offence.

    "Social gambling between family and friends, such as the playing of mahjong with monetary stakes, in private places is not criminalised under the CGHA," it adds.

    Mahjong is currently allowed as an exempted gambling activity for members of a private body such as a company or a society. They are allowed to place wagers as long as the group does not profit from the gaming nor allow any side betting on the premises. It also cannot allow members under the age of 18 to take part, says MHA.

    Under the CGHA, it is illegal to gamble in a common gaming house, which is defined as a place accessible to the public or kept for habitual gaming, says head lawyer Gloria James of law firm Gloria James-Civetta & Co.

    On the trend of people using online mahjong groups to recruit new players, Ms James says this may be considered illegal if the invitation is open to the public and the new player is a stranger.

    Those found guilty of managing or assisting in managing a common gaming house can be fined between $5,000 and $50,000 and be jailed for up to three years.

    Those found guilty of gaming in a common gaming house can be fined up to $5,000, jailed for up to six months or both.

    She says the police will also assess whether the premises are kept primarily for gambling. "Even if the private gambling sessions are frequent, there is criminal liability only if the premises are kept primarily for the purpose of gambling - for example, premises with no use other than for gambling," she says.

    Gamblers wishing to seek help can call the National Council on Problem Gambling's hotline at 1800-6-668-668.

Retailers tell The Sunday Times they have sold more mahjong sets or paraphernalia to people in their 20s and 30s in the past year or so.

Mahjong retailer Tong Cheong Soon Kee Trading at City Plaza has seen about 30 per cent more young customers since last November.

According to co-owner Jay Leow, 35, these customers usually opt for mahjong tiles in bold and striking colours such as pink or gold.

"With the Covid-19 situation, many young people who like to travel are stuck in Singapore, so mahjong has become one of their new hobbies," he says.

  • Mahjong apps

  • Itching to play mahjong but cannot amass enough players? Check out these popular mahjong apps.

    1 LET'S MAHJONG

    Play Hong Kong-style mahjong on this app, complete with Cantonese audio clips announcing the tile discarded, be it sai fung (west wind) or nam fung (south wind).

    You can play at different speeds and choose from characters such as the angsty-looking Uncle Choi or smart Tat Boy.

    You can create a private room to play with your friends as well.

    Info: The app is available in English and Chinese. It is free on iOS App Store and Google Play.

    2 MAHJONG-STAR THREE SHORT OF ONE

    Have a face-off with your favourite celebrities. This app allows you to play with the avatars of Taiwanese stars such as S.H.E singer Ella Chen and television host Jacky Wu.

    Info: Available only in Chinese, it is free on the iOS App Store and Google Play.

    3 DEITIES PLAY MAHJONG

    You can set up a game in the app to play exclusively with your friends or join a quick game with other players online.

    Info: Available only in Chinese, the app is free on the iOS App Store and Google Play.

    4 MAHJONGLEH

    Play the Singapore version of mahjong featuring animal tiles.

    Click on a sound button to chide another player to move "faster leh" or to exclaim "huat ah" when all the tiles fall into place.

    It is suitable for beginners.

    Info: Free on the iOS App Store

    5 MAHJONG 3P (THREE-PLAYER MAHJONG)

    This app offers a three-player game in which joker tiles can be used to complete a winning hand.

    Info: Available in English and Chinese, the app is free on the iOS App Store and Google Play.

At Tong & Da in Woodlands, which sells automatic mahjong tables, eight in 10 customers are now in their 20s and 30s. They buy their starter sets mainly from the retailer's e-commerce stores on Carousell and Shopee. It has seen an increase of about 20 per cent in sales since the pandemic.

Undergraduate Brennan Lee, 21, has been playing mahjong more frequently, at least once a week, during the pandemic.

When the number of visitors to a household was previously capped at five, he found mahjong a good way to hang out with friends as it requires just four players.

"I get to play mahjong and, at the same time, spend time with my different groups of pals," he says. "It's a win-win situation."

Polytechnic graduate Vicki Wong, 20, missed playing mahjong so much during the circuit breaker that she played almost every other day as soon as phase two started.

She is intrigued by the game as it gives her a glimpse of each player's character, such as whether he or she is a good sport or sore loser.

"I feel a great sense of accomplishment after I rack my brains to form a winning hand that is rare or difficult to achieve," she adds.

The game has also helped her to solidify friendships, like with fellow poly graduate Clarence Quek, 22, whom she met three years ago when both were novice players.

Mr Quek says: "I would say she is there for at least nine out of 10 games I play. That is why we ended up being best friends."

Young people are also buying customised mahjong sets as housewarming or birthday gifts. Think tiles with a family surname or a cartoon design of the family dog printed on the back.

Ms Agnes Ong, 33, founder of CustoMy Mahjong, which sells bespoke sets online, has noticed more people in their late 20s to 30s picking these up as gifts since 2019.

Three years ago, civil servant Alex Cheng, 30, customised a fruit-themed mahjong set for his brother and sister-in-law.

Pineapples, a symbol of prosperity, adorn the back of the tiles to bestow extra luck. The flower tiles come with images of fruit like oranges and apples - perfect for his brother, a fruit lover.

BEWARE ADDICTION

But Singapore Counselling Centre's chief well-being officer John Shepherd Lim reminds young players to be careful not to become addicted to mahjong.

"It would be helpful to decide within your group of friends how to space out mahjong sessions such that it will not negatively impact your financial resources and personal well-being," he says.

He also advises people to set wagers within their means. The vicious circle of playing more to recoup losses can worsen quickly when debt is involved, he says.

"It is most important to ensure that the stakes are not raised so high to the point where it is beyond the financial capacity of anyone within the group," he says.

Undergraduate Mr Lee is mindful about playing only with close pals and setting only modest, friendly wagers.

For Miss Sim, a round of low-stakes mahjong remains the best way to spend quality time with her loved ones.

She reflects: "If not for mahjong, I probably wouldn't have spent as much time as I have with my family and friends."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 18, 2021, with the headline 'Winning over young fans'. Subscribe