"Mahjong and the Reshaping of American Domesticity" at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Jewish Studies graduate student Annelise Heinz attended the Berkshire Conference on the History Women, held in Toronto May 22-25, 2014. The Berkshire Conference is a seminal event for historians of women and gender. It is held once every three years and is a key opportunity to contribute to and learn from the leaders in the field.

She organized a panel entitled “Out of Bounds: Transpacific Circulation and Domesticity in China and the United States, 1830-1960” and gave a presentation on “Mahjong and the Reshaping of American Domesticity”.

The Chinese parlor game mahjong swept American society in the 1920s, entering the United States from Shanghai via California promoters. By 1923 the insatiable demand for sets made the game one of Shanghai’s largest exports to the United States.  Elite white women dressed in elaborate “mandarin” costumes to participate in mahjong parties. By consuming Oriental goods, white women could enter an exotic and titillating world that was becoming newly accessible to them: public sexuality.  Mahjong came to symbolize the dangerous promises of pleasure associated with Oriental luxury, one that also threatened to erode white domesticity. 

Mahjong helped white Americans navigate personal and social transformations while constructing racialized boundaries against the threats to domesticity projected onto the figure of the male Chinese instructor.  Humorous and biting portrayals of Chinese influence reflected both a new stereotype of a faux-assi milated trickster and critiqued women’s increased independence by linking female mahjong players with neglectful domesticity. Chinese Americans capitalized on mahjong’s economic opportunities, even as they wrestled with cultural commodification and perpetual outsider status.

After World War II, suburbanization and its culture of domesticity created new racialized territories. Jewish American women had been playing mahjong since the 1920s fad, but the postwar era nurtured a flourishing gendered Jewish mahjong culture. For many Jewish Americans, the game became synonymous with a domestic Jewish womanhood. In the postwar home, a mahjong game defined the space it occupied: out of family-centered living rooms and kitchens, the game created spaces of leisure exclusively for women. The culture of the game – the rituals that evolved around it – developed in tandem with the new domestic world it inhabited.