Madam Mahjong / by Katherine Cecil

Filming Mahjong Madams. 

Music = Pearl Tower (Instrumental) by Shanghai Restoration Project

Not many people have heard of Guiyang, those who have, usually only know it for its reputation as being the poorest city in China. When I told several of my Hong Kongese friends that I lived in Guiyang they said that my decision to move to the area was an odd choice, they explained that from there perspective there are many poor provinces in West China, but Guizhou is the only one in which poverty alone is its singular defining feature. Other places have famed areas of natural beauty, historic landmarks or ‘pop’ (their word) ethnic minority significance (such as T1*eta.n or M0ng01). Guizhou it seems, is just known for being poor.

Guiyang’s reputation appeared unduly tainted, and this upset me. Sure, I admit it doesn’t have the wealthy architecture of an east coast city (Shanghai province), the tropical weather of the southern cities (Yunnan province) or quite bear the mystery of a deeply western city (Qinghai province), but it does have something special, a distinction largely a result of its infamy. Guiyang has remained fairly untouched by tourism, both internally and internationally, and as a happy result, the city has maintained its traditional Guizhou roots whilst still developing an independent (yet somewhat underground) youth culture.

Don’t get me wrong -- I’ll be the first to admit -- If you were to be dropped in the middle of Nanming, downtown Guiyang, in broad day light, on a weekday, you’d probably not much like the place. The city centre is chaos, the roads are big, the traffic is hell and the pavements are small, poorly constructed and mostly used by mopeds. The buildings are bleak, Mordor-ish examples of communist architecture. Intimidating towers covered from head to toe in neon flashing lights. The noise is immense. The shops try to entice custom through the use of thundering microphones, the food venders in an attempt to be heard over the noise of the shops, shriek through blaring speakers, even the old ladies selling 包子/ baozi battle against the cacophony of shops and vendors by means of pre-recorded cassette tapes played through hi-fis at full volume. All of this happens against the violent din of everyone else in the vicinity screaming just to make themselves heard in general conversation… Its quite simply, the loudest place outside of a nightclub (and even that comes close), I have ever been.  

But, behind the initial smack of metropolis, is a traditional Chinese everydayness that has been lost in many of the countries better-known cities.

Off the main roads are narrower paths, equally packed with street vendors. There are metres and metres of red tents selling all manner of tasty and not-so-tasty treats. These spaces are crowded with school children (who never seem to be in school) and tough, scrawny looking workers carrying huge bags of vegetables/ cans/ bricks/ rubbish/ other scrawny workers, on their backs. Another feature of the side streets are the large parties who consider this area to be an appropriate place to make a hot pot. Seemingly oblivious of the pedestrian and motorised traffic, these collectives precariously balance enormous scorching cauldrons on flaming gas cookers -- laughing, feasting and generally making merry -- as casually as if the rammed street were a relatives lounge during a particularly exuberant celebration.

Elderly people meander through the commotion seemingly without direction or purpose. These old-folk are of particular interest to me, its almost as if they woke up one morning and just decided to walk. I remember watching a Hertzog documentary set in the South Pole; there is a particularly harrowing scene where the documenter describes how on occasion a singular penguin will suddenly decide to leave the group and walk towards an abstract point in the horizon. Regardless of how many times the scientists will place the rogue penguin back in its waddle, he will repeatedly break away and continue on his solitary path -- stubborn and determined -- old Guiyangers remind me of these penguins...

Deeper still, into the squalor, the paths siphon into dimly lit alleyways, trail mazes interconnecting the dank housing projects. I lived embedded in this backdrop for several months. I remember clearly Benny, my boss, moving me in. I recall having to actively mask my terror as in broken English he attempted to convince me that the area was entirely crime free, and in his defence he was right. Despite the state of the dilapidated building, with its poor lighting and general murky aesthetic, I’m convinced that I’ll never again live in such a safe and caring environment. The community was outstandingly strong.  

These alleys are home to the Mahjong players. It seems that the first floor of all the residential buildings in Guiyang are reserved exclusively to the art of gambling, and not just light gambling of an afternoon, but intense gambling 24/7. Hordes of middle aged Guiyangers cram into dark rooms, and sit for what I can only assume to be eternity, playing Mahjong at an outstanding rate of knots.

Now, call me naïve, but before moving to Asia I thought that Mahjong was a slow paced, somewhat therapeutic ‘app’ game built into most computers, you know, the Zen like art of de-piling tiles. I was genuinely shocked to discover that in reality this is not the case at all. In fact, the first time I played Mahjong proper with a group of my Chinese friends, I was somewhat hurt by the aggression and animosity displayed at my inability to gamble at pace (They apologised afterwards, stating that they simply had never met anyone quite as shit at the game as me, and my ineptitude had came as a frustrating shock). That’s one thing about the Chinese, their cutthroat in their honesty.

I’d regularly wonder past the open Mahjong rooms close to my flat and curiously stretch my neck to observe the alien behaviour within. The undeniable tension that underlies all gambling, coupled with the sound of clattering ivory was too much for me to resist. One lady in particular stood out from the crowd, annoyingly I never caught her name, however I affectionately think of her as ‘The Madam of Mahjong’. She sat pride of place at the centre table. The Madam always played men, and I never saw the same man play her twice. She was the queen bee of the Mahjong hive. I liked this, it impressed me, and I wanted to look at her. However, one evening on my way to Quin Ling Dong Lu, I did a thing that has got me into trouble on numerous occasions in the past, I stared for to long…

The Madam, who I’d assumed to be deeply involved in her game, suddenly turned her head, pointed, and shouted “外国人!/ laowai!” at considerable volume. The entire room stopped and stared. They stared at me staring at them, and then they stared at me -- very, very, slowly -- trying to creep out of their field of vision. It was too little too late, I’d been busted, and the Madam summoned me towards her. I had no choice but to oblige; having to walk past her hive everyday meant that running away was simply out of the question. My entry was a squeeze, aside from the large groups of people, tables, and a gas-stove; the room also contained five chickens, a dog, and several cats. It was also sweltering, a hotpot was bubbling in the corner, it looked the colour of sulphur and pungent as hell.

"吃了吗/ chī le ma" (have you eaten?) It was a statement rather than a question (In China enquiring about a persons hunger is pretty much the same as saying hello). Before I had time to reply she pulled out the seat next to her and ordered one of the men to bring me a bowl of the acrid stew, she then then continued with her game as if I wasn’t there.

I’m not a lover of 辣椒/ làjiāo (chilli spice) unless its 花椒/ huā jiāo (Sichuan pepper) and even then I apply it sparingly. In Guiyang however it’s a staple, whether it be used as the base ingredient, sprinkled excessively on top, placed on the side as a dip, mixed with vinegar and soy as a sauce -- or, indeed, all of the above, in one fiery explosion -- they eat it with everything. When you ask for your food to be 不要辣椒/ búyào làjiāo (without chilli spice) your often laughed at or ignored, as if the request is so ludicrous that it must be joke, and if its not, then it ought to be. Along with her sister provinces Sichuan and Hunan, Guizhou’s food is the spiciest in China, and by result the area boosts the highest percentage of patient’s omitted to hospital with hot pot related complications. One of my Guiyang friends told me that when his mother travels around for festivals and work, she takes a bag of 辣椒/ làjiāo with her to sprinkle on all her food. She refuses to try anything new, adamant in her belief that Guizhou cuisine is the finest in the country, and indeed the world.

I sat in the room for just over an hour watching the intense gambling and eating enough stew so as to be polite but without signalling my wanting more (I’ve fallen into that cultural trap one to many times), in that time I saw a significant amount of kuai change hands, none of which was the Madams, who seemed above physical exchange, choosing rather to jot her winnings down in a children’s notepad with a picture of a fairy on the front.

It was an eye-opening experience, not simply because I learnt more about an ancient and complex game, but also, and significantly, because my invitation into the space implied my no longer being an outsider in this tightly knit community. I’d finally been accepted as a local, and that felt good. From then on, when I walked past the Mahjong hive, I wasn’t faced with an intimidating wall of blank faces and whispered voices, but rather, an assembly of wide toothed grins and the welcome cheer of my neighbourhoods favourite pastime. Gambling. 

They say that practice makes perfect, and although I’m still far, far, to slow to play any of the old hands, I am gradually improving, one clattering tile at a time…