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Turn off the TV - it's time for mahjong

Updated: 2014-11-11
By Deng Zhangyu ( China Daily Africa )

Undeterred by the complexities of the game, foreigners are taking it up in droves

On a recent Sunday morning, people from around the world gather around two tables in a hutong.

Chi, peng and hu - the Chinese words to call out mahjong deals - are frequently shouted. The players consist of travelers and expats in Beijing, and they have come to the hutong to attend a mahjong workshop.

"Most beginners say it's quite easy to learn the basics of mahjong," says Ilya Cheremnikh, 32, founder of Culture Yard, a language school and culture center that provides mahjong workshops for beginners.

Cheremnikh started the workshop four years ago. He initially offered mahjong lessons for employees from foreign companies as a kind of team building activity. Then he found that foreign travelers also had an interest in the game.

Mahjong is a unique way to experience Chinese culture, Cheremnikh says. "When you walk down a street in China, no matter city you're in, you can always find people playing it. It's part of the culture."

The crazy popularity of the game across China surprised Cheremnikh, an Israeli, when he first visited the country six years ago. He traveled to small villages in Sichuan province, and noticed that many homes did not have a television, but they did have fancy automatic mahjong tables.

"For many people, it's a part of their livelihood," Cheremnikh says.

One of the participants at Sunday morning's workshop was Jelle Alsemgeest, from the Netherlands. Alsemgeest brought along his parents so they could experience this part of Chinese culture.

His parents, both older than 60, were able to learn the game quickly and even won a round. Alsemgeest, who has lived in China for more than three years, first played mahjong last summer, when he was on a business trip in Gansu province. A group of Chinese friends invited him to play.

"I thought the game was quite complicated and would take me weeks to learn. I was very surprised that it only took me one evening to learn the basic rules and know how to play it," says Alsemgeest, 34.

Alsemgeest's mother enjoyed the game so much that she is thinking about joining a mahjong club in her hometown of IJsselstein

The 61-year-old says there are two mahjong clubs in her town: one for the old and one for the young. The former was set up by Indonesians and has recruited some locals to play. The clubs often hold competitions.

"Maybe I will play it many times in the future," she says. "It's a good way to learn and think. Good for my brain."

Although Alsemgeest can play mahjong and knows the basics, he says it will take time to master the complicated rules and remember how many tiles of the same symbols are thrown into the well.

For Cheremnikh, the difficult part is the speed at which the game is played. When he plays with Chinese, Cheremnikh says, it is hard for him to keep up and bring in a tile and throw one out.

"I'm considering cooperating with owners of mahjong houses in hutong. I want to bring foreigners to the local mahjong houses and let them experience the authentic mahjong culture."

dengzhangyu@chinadaily.com.cn

 Turn off the TV - it's time for mahjong

Many mahjong sets contain 136 or 144 titles. Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily

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