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Lithium Rebranding mahjong in an offensive display of self-absorption

Feb. 9, 2021
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When Kate LaGere sat down to play mahjong with friends, she was disappointed. The centuries-old designs of the traditional Chinese game seemed outdated and boring, unappealing to her aesthetic preferences. LaGere wanted a tile set that fit her taste and reflected the fun she had playing the game. Joining forces with her two friends, LaGere became a co-founder of The Mahjong Line, now selling mahjong sets and accessories with bright, modern designs. No longer would LaGere and friends have to play with the bland tiles of early China; these “refreshed” sets fit perfectly into a more chic lifestyle.

As screenshots of the brand’s website began to spread on social media, the three co-founders, all of whom are white women with no connection to Chinese ancestry, faced backlash for their appropriation of Chinese culture. The sets, which range from $325 to $425, bear little resemblance to the traditional game pieces, with “The Cheeky Set” and “The Botanical Set” featuring no Chinese characters at all. Instead, the bubbly aesthetic of millennial pink, sans serif fonts, and pithy one-liners caters more to the particular taste of upper-middle-class cosmopolitan white women. 

The sets are even marketed based on a specific customer profile. According to the website, the Minimal Set suits a woman who loves “a good Eames chair, the smell of coffee shops…and the pulse of NYC,” while the Cheeky Set is for the woman on her bike with a “flea-find stuffed in the basket…equally happy in LA or Austin.” These women, apparently bouncing between boutiques in New York and Los Angeles, are hard to imagine as anything other than white and wealthy. Indeed, the original “About Us” page described The Mahjong Line sets as perfect for a match by the pool or in a cocktail bar, both of which are distinctly upscale experiences that serve to market an ideal lifestyle rather than emphasizing the cultural significance of the game. The ideal customer, it seems, is not interested in Chinese tradition, but sees the mahjong tiles as a trendy, unique addition to their pastel apartment.

The company issued an apology on Instagram and Facebook, as well as on their website, acknowledging their failure to respect Chinese heritage and emphasizing that their company mission is rooted in a pure “love for the game of American Mahjong.” The apology states that there are always “more conversations to be had…as we learn and grow” as a brand. But the internet had already decided The Mahjong Line’s fate. Though comments are disabled on the company’s Instagram page, their Facebook is overwhelmed by thousands of comments chastising the company’s cultural appropriation and whitewashing of tradition. Many users call for the company to shut down, and others call their apology shallow and disingenuous.

In a statement to D Magazine, LaGere restated her apology but said that she and her co-founders “stand by their products” and that it will “take some time” to properly represent and promote mahjong history within the brand. But it seems like the brand is specifically designed to erase history, with “Not Your Mama’s Mahjong” playing mats and Instagram-ready marketing. While a company apology might seem like a hopeful step forward, corporate remorse is often hollow and riddled with meaningless buzzwords about acknowledging missteps and doing better. Given that The Mahjong Line is marketed toward young millennial white women looking for aesthetic rebrands, the entire company mission is antithetical to respect toward Chinese tradition.

The game of mahjong is rooted in generations of tradition and is ubiquitous among Chinese culture, often played at family gatherings and celebrations. Thus, mahjong’s primary purpose is its service as a cultural experience, not its aesthetic appeal. Although different tile designs can certainly enhance one’s personal connection to the game, The Mahjong Line puts style first and meaning last. The brand is perfectly positioned for the millennial white woman’s values: aesthetic, expensive, and just worldly enough to seem cool.

In the original “About Us” page on the company’s website, LaGere’s mahjong origin story includes her frustration that when searching for tile sets, “nothing came close to mirroring her style and personality.” Browsing the options for sale, this sentiment makes sense. The Mahjong Line is designed to mirror LaGere’s style and the style of women like her; she succeeded in remedying the problem she faced. Here is where it seems impossible for The Mahjong Line to ethically move forward at all. While the business may succeed with customers like LaGere who want a cuter version of mahjong, the deep disrespect for tradition is indicative of the self-absorption and shallow obsession with aesthetics that caused the company to exist in the first place. If traditional mahjong is so unbearably boring to these women that an entire company now exists to make it more interesting, maybe their love of mahjong is not as rooted in respect as it should be.

Culture does not exist to mirror one’s style or personality, especially not of someone who does not belong to that culture. In fact, the purpose of tradition is to deemphasize the self and encourage the consideration of history and context. The inversion of that purpose so that mahjong serves as a supplement to the self is blatantly ignorant. This obsession with the self, especially among white women, is dangerously unchecked, and it creates situations like these of disrespect and cultural erasure. Rather than trying to “move forward” and “learn from our mistakes,” we should be considering why these mistakes are even happening in the first place.

Illustration by Eutalia de La Paz