For the Chinatown architectural firm Food New York, the fast-paced tile game offers a chance to find more seats at more tables for the city’s creative scene.
Credit…By David Chow
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By Jason Chen
The idea for an office mahjong league came unexpectedly to Bella Janssens, the director of the architectural design firm Food New York, which has collaborated with Virgil Abloh, Axel Vervoordt and Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art. During a flight from Amsterdam in 2021, as post-pandemic travel resumed, she felt inspired while watching “The Joy Luck Club,” the 1993 film adaptation of Amy Tan’s 1989 novel, wherein the intermingling stories of four Chinese women and their daughters unfold over rounds of the four-player, tile-based game.
Though it originated in China in the 19th century, mahjong has long been popular throughout Southeast Asia, Japan and America; it was brought stateside by a Standard Oil company representative returning from Shanghai in the 1920s. Janssens, who’s from the Netherlands but grew up between the United Kingdom and Singapore, decided she and her colleagues should start playing after meetings or during lunch in Food’s Chinatown office; eventually, those pickup games grew into an amateur-friendly mahjong tournament that the firm’s founding director, Dong-Ping Wong, 43, and Janssens, 34, have organized twice a year since late 2021. Wong, who was born and raised in San Diego, had a typical second-generation immigrant’s relationship to mahjong. (His parents are from Hong Kong.) “I played it once, probably with my grandparents and great-aunts, and my memory was that I won that game,” he says, “and only 30 years later did I realize they were probably just [messing] with me.”
The first Food Mahjong Club, in December 2021, was a scrappy affair. Wong and Janssens didn’t prepare much besides buying some mahjong sets, designing a logo and sending out invitations to friends and collaborators in the design, fashion and art worlds. By the third iteration, last September, the ad hoc gathering had become a ticketed event at a defunct dim sum parlor within the 88 East Broadway Mall that benefited the community-building nonprofit Welcome to Chinatown and drew some 150 people. “A lot of our work is trying to engage the public in some way,” says Wong, noting that “a dream project for the office would be to build out a community center in Chinatown.”
Here’s how the most recent tournament came together one weeknight in March, as a few dozen people gathered at Food’s headquarters to learn the game, compete, then socialize — and eat dim sum — once most of them had inevitably lost.
The hosts: Wong and Janssens have worked together for more than five years at Food New York, where Janssens handles operations and Wong leads design. After shepherding the game’s novices toward beginner tables and introducing acquaintances to one another, Wong served as the tournament’s M.C., counting down rounds (“Twenty seconds to choose a winner!”) and guiding those who advanced to their designated tables. Wong’s punctiliousness was a lesson learned from lingerers at the first Food Mahjong Club, when games went long over schedule. “Now I’m yelling at people to ‘get up!’ and ‘move over there!’ and ‘finish your game!’” he says with a laugh.
The rules: This tournament began with 32 players. After a quarter- and semifinal round, the remaining four players (the creative strategist Brendan Chareoncharutkun, the producer Wei-Li Wang, the casting director Najia Li Saad and — completely coincidentally — this writer), played for a prize of a new mahjong set, which ultimately went to Wang. Food Mahjong Club plays a Cantonese version of the game, in which players begin with 13 tiles and win by completing a 14-tile hand of four three-tile sets (called melds, similar to hands in poker) and one pair called eyes. Cantonese style is regarded as the easiest for beginners, as opposed to, say, Taiwanese style, which requires winning with a 16-tile hand and has more complicated scoring conventions. For nonspeakers, Wong and Janssens also designed cards that translated the Chinese symbols for numerical characters and necessary vocabulary: pong when a player nabs three of a kind, or tingpai when they’re one tile away from victory (the Mandarin equivalent of “uno”).
The venue: The game took place at Food’s headquarters off Chatham Square, a ninth-floor studio that fits only six square tables, with just enough space to cram in extra stools for spectators, a buffet for food and drink and some standing room for those more focused on industry gossip. Wong and Janssens set the mood with red lights that evoked a Wong Kar-wai film (or an “underground parlor,” as Wong says), though the exact shade took trial and error. “The lights were sort of orangy and blue before we switched to red and pink, which helped it look coherent,” Janssens says. “You couldn’t tell there was a messy architectural office behind you.”
The food and drink: The caterer Jamie Cheung of Edible Affairs organized a spread based on Hong Kong-style street food, with smaller bites and nongreasy finger fare (the better to eat while drawing tiles), including har gow shrimp dumplings, curry fish balls and tea eggs. The centerpiece was a croquembouche made not of profiteroles but of shoutao (longevity peach buns filled with lotus paste, typically eaten during birthday celebrations for elders). In keeping with the evening’s lychee martinis — the club’s signature drink — Cheung also served lychee-filled goji berry and chrysanthemum agar-agar jellies in the shape of mahjong tiles.