Fierce Competition and Lychee Martinis at an Underground Mahjong Club

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.

Article by Jason Chen

19-TMAG-UNDERGROUND-MAHJONG-2Bella Janssens (right) and, next to her, Dong-Ping Wong with friends and colleagues during the recent Food Mahjong Club tournament hosted by Wong’s architecture and design firm, Food New York. Photograph by David Chow.

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 organised 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 realise they were probably just [messing] with me.”

For the tournament, the co-hosts asked guests to bring sets and also purchased some from online retailers like Yellow Mountain Imports. Photograph by David Chow.
Both veterans and amateurs competed to take home the grand prize: a mahjong set of their own. Photograph by David Chow.

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 socialise — and eat dim sum — once most of them had inevitably lost.

“A lot of our work is trying to engage the public in some way,” says Wong, seated above. Photograph by David Chow.

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.

In addition to a larger buffet of hot and cold street food-inspired dishes, the club usually puts out an array of popular Asian snacks, including haw flakes, White Rabbit milk candy and crispy green peas. Photograph by David Chow.

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 chef Jamie Cheung designed a feast that included a croquembouche made of shoutao (longevity peach buns), lychee martinis — a club staple — a wood ear mushroom salad, steamed cabbage rolls, tea eggs and platters of fresh fruit. Photograph by David Chow.

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 parlour,” 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 organised 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 centrepiece 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.

The pushers, used to organise and count the titles, were handmade by Food New York’s own architects and designers from balsa wood typically used for creating models. Photograph by David Chow.

The music: Wong created a Spotify playlist inspired by the Hong Kong pop singer Sammi Cheng’s 1995 song “Du Jiang Shi Chang” (“獨家試唱”), which became the club’s anthem after Wong and Janssens were listening to a track list that the Chinatown community organizer Rochelle Kwan curated for the streaming radio station NTS. Wong’s playlist’s mostly mid-tempo tracks — Cantopop hits from the 1990s and 2000s by Gigi Leung, Faye Wong and Ekin Cheung — struck the mainly 30- and 40-something attendees with a wave of Chinese-inflected nostalgia. “A few told us they felt almost emotional,” Janssens says.

The equipment: While some Chinese Americans are lucky enough to play with vintage resin mahjong sets inherited from their parents (which are actually similar to versions you can find on Amazon), Wong and Janssens had to get creative, given the number of tiles required. They borrowed sets from friends and family; Wong, asking his parents to lend him theirs, discovered an oversize set his grandparents owned decades earlier in Hong Kong (but they didn’t send it from San Diego). The co-hosts also bought new sets from Walmart and Yellow Mountain Imports: glittery champagne versions and emerald ones that resemble pandan jellies. Slightly controversial to the purists were the American sets, which have numerals printed on tiles featuring Chinese characters, so non-Chinese speakers don’t have to guess, for instance, whether a character means five or six.

The architectural touch: Wong says that although some mahjong players forgo them, pushers — the ruler-like sticks used not just to organise the tiles into straight lines but also to count them — are essential. Depending on the style of mahjong, the pushers are the length of 13 or 16 tiles lined up side by side; because preferences differ, the implements often need to be purchased separately. Instead, some employees at Food New York crafted their own out of balsa wood, the lightweight material used for design maquettes. “We make a lot of models in the office,” Wong says, “so that was easy.”