Behind the nondescript door of the Lei Family’s Association on Waverly Place is the answer to how elderly Chinese residents survive the isolation of being an immigrant. Two rows of square tables fill a room that smells of cigarettes despite no visible smoking. Seated around each table are four players, primarily men dressed in unfashionable, yet comfortable coats, deftly handling the 13 mahjong tiles that are automatically dealt from the table.
For many, mahjong — a traditional Chinese board game with 144 tiles that clack and clatter throughout the game — is more than a pastime. Every day, thousands of Chinese American senior citizens come to life at the mahjong table, hunching over their tiles like generals at war. The game is not unlike gin rummy, but the clacking tiles, speed and seriousness can make the table seem more like a battlefield than a quiet club table of cards. And for many there, it is more.
“What else would we do? Sit around reading the newspaper all day?” said Chunpei Lei, a leader in Chinatown and the head of the Lei Family’s mahjong hall, one of dozens of halls in Chinatown that cater mainly to the elderly. Lei, 67, has been the head of the mahjong hall for two years.
In theory, the association is only for people with the surname “Lei,” but in practice, Lei explained, “Anyone can play here.”
The dozens of parlors are hidden within the 22 blocks of Chinatown, invisible on the bustling main roads and instead tucked away within alleys that are so much like a mixture of those in Shanghai or Hong Kong, but never next to a gift shop, above a popular restaurant or behind a museum.
One afternoon, I opened a door on Waverly Place to a hushed room with its tables and meticulously stacked tiles. Several players gazed up at me, the youngest person in the room by many decades, but soon resumed their defense.
“The same 20 people come here every day, all retired,” Lei explained to me later in his office. As we spoke, a mouse darted into view in the background, but Lei seemed not to notice. “At least half of the elderly Chinese in the city like to play mahjong.”
As the games resumed, voices in Cantonese and Taishanese rang out. The made-in-Shanghai automatic table shuffled tiles, which soon echoed as players smashed them forcefully onto the tables. One man, waiting for other players to join him, sat idly reading the Sing Tao Daily on the sofa near the door, the pages rustling beneath the clamor of the tiles.
Lei said that many of these players don’t live in Chinatown. Instead, they commute from neighborhoods such as the Mission and Bayview, making the trek like office workers on duty, six days a week. Every morning after breakfast, they take a bus to the hall, start playing at 9 or 10 a.m., and keep at it for five or six hours straight. At 4 p.m., when the hall closes, the day’s excitement is over. They stroll back home, visibly less animated than they’d been in the hall, recuperating for the return and rematches of the next day.
Occasionally, the mannerisms of the game became almost violent. Players knocked their tiles against the iron table as if to scare their opponents, constantly shouting for luck as each game neared its end or bemoaning the possibility of a coming loss. Many threw their tiles down sharply; others hurled them like frisbees into the mahjong pile. The faster, the better.
“Having their hands move about is a kind of exercise for them,” said Chunpei Lei. “Finding a way to win is good for their brains; it can prevent dementia. Plus the randomness of winning and losing mahjong makes it stimulating.”
But, on occasion, it can be too stimulating. “Sometimes old men die suddenly at the mahjong table,” said Ding Lee, former president of Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
Despite the energy in the hall, the players are meticulous about following the rules, written and unwritten. Every player wears a mask out of consideration for Covid-19, with the collateral benefit of hiding their expression during the game; many players smoke, but they’re always careful to do it outside, on the curb.
The amount of money stacked on each game is kept purposefully at a couple of dollars, tops. Those who want to play for more money go elsewhere; those who can’t afford it and the $3 daily fees are mostly old ladies. The latter bring their own stools and quarters to play mahjong at Portsmouth Square, 500 feet away, which explains the overwhelming majority of men in the room.
Each game lasts between three and five minutes. One person can play 100 games a day, or more than 30,000 games a year.
“Mahjong has been handed down from generation to generation,” said Lei, as a group of younger players in their thirties entered the hall. “My father and grandfathers all play. Even my grandson knows how to play. This game is the essence of Chinese culture.”
As I watched, I began to feel a sense of order as the four players at each table moved tiles across the table together, took five-minute breaks together, and ended the day together. Everything in the place was part of a complicated system, and I was the only element that didn’t belong.
At four o’clock, there were only two tables of players left. I walked up, hoping to ask more questions, but before I could introduce myself, a lanky man yelled at me in Taishanese, “Get out! Get out!” When I failed to respond, he added: “Should I speak to you in Mandarin or English, huh?”
The others were silent, looking down at their own tiles; after this, no one else would speak to me. But when I went outside, I saw the lanky man smoking. I went to squat down next to him, and he took the initiative to say: “What do you think you’re doing here? We don’t have anywhere else to go!”
From his defensive tone, I realized he must think I’d come to disrupt and scrutinize the activities that took place in the hall. But his voice only became more strained as he said, “Some of us have problems with our legs. What is there to do? We can only play mahjong!”