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Everything clicks for the Sunshine Coast's growing mahjong community

A game invented in China and spread worldwide through multicultural influences is experiencing a surge of popularity on the Sunshine Coast. On Feb.
Sunshine Coast mahjong players assemble at the Gibsons Public Market for an afternoon of intensive gameplay.

A game invented in China and spread worldwide through multicultural influences is experiencing a surge of popularity on the Sunshine Coast. 

On Feb. 13, nearly three dozen women converged at the Gibsons Public Market for a Valentine Mahjong Mixer, hewing to a crimson dress code in honour of the holiday. Mahjong is a four-person tile game devised in China in the mid-1800s. Local instructor Lisa Hilton learned its intricacies eight years ago while living in Palm Desert, California.  

“It’s an addictive game,” said Hilton. “I think it’s the feel of the tiles, and the rhythm of the game.” During the opening round, players snap tiles into place in a move known as the twittering of the sparrows. “There’s a cadence and there are rituals in the game that make it interesting,” added Hilton. “I tell players you never lose. You always learn.” 

The eight foursomes at the Valentine mixer represented only half the active mahjong community on the southern Sunshine Coast, according to Hilton. One year ago, she organized informal lessons to share her mahjong knowledge. Interest burgeoned. She now offers regular classes (with tuition proceeds that benefit the public market) and coordinates weekly scheduled gameplay. Another weekday drop-in session is in the works with an emphasis on mixed-gender play to lure male initiates. 

“I do it all because I love it and it’s my philanthropic project,” Hilton explained. “I just love the community feel of the market, and I meet more friends [through the market] than anywhere else.” 

The tile-based game has over a dozen variations worldwide. The Gibsons mahjong community has settled on an American style, which some practitioners avow is the most challenging. New players have to learn a lengthy list of patterns that combine 144 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols. 

Mahjong gained popularity in the United States during the 1920s. Despite the era’s widespread prejudice against people of Chinese heritage, many Americans were transfixed by the cultures of ancient Asia. The game became a socially acceptable way to express this fascination. In 1924, actor and singer Eddie Cantor recorded a song titled “Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong.” After the Second World War, residents of the country’s rapidly-expanding suburbs used the game as a social connection. Jewish women especially became avid players. 

Each April, the National Mahjong League based in New York City publishes a card with new gameplay patterns. 

“We play those patterns all year long,” said Hilton, “and then next year we get all excited for the new patterns to come along and we memorize the patterns. The biggest joy is when I see [players] click and get it and enjoy it. A lot of ladies say ‘I’ve been living in the community for years and I haven’t never met this many people.’” 

The group’s membership illustrates mahjong’s power to forge community connections. Anita Crawford saw lessons advertised by the Coast Cultural Alliance. Vicki MacKenzie, an acquaintance of Crawford in the Gibsons Yacht Club, observed Crawford’s gameplay in action and signed up for one of Hilton’s classes. Karin Tigert, enticed by Hilton’s leadership and instruction, commutes from her home in Sechelt. 

“The more you play, the better you know what’s going on,” said Crawford. 

“You’ve got to stay focused,” added MacKenzie, “but every once in a while we burst out laughing.” 

Hilton’s classes are $50 for 9 hours of instruction, with 100 per cent of proceeds donated back to the Gibsons Community Building Society by way of donation, room rental and mahjong program growth. Information about upcoming classes and drop-in play is available by emailing