Mah Jongg in America

Mah Jongg in America

Introduction and Background

My grandmother was born in Verona, Missouri, moved to Portland, Oregon at an early age, and later ran away to San Francisco where she fell in with a theater troupe and took the literal "slow boat to China." There she met my grandfather, Joe Babcock, who was working for Standard Oil at the time.

I recently became aware of this article she wrote 90 years ago for the The Catalina Islander about her adventures in China and my grandfather's role in introducing Mah Jongg to the United States. He trademarked the name, codified and simplified the rules, and imported Chinese-made Mah Jongg sets to the United States. For a time, it was incredibly popular (Macy's had a Mah Jongg section!).

My grandmother was always a little “loopy" and she demonstrates that here by changing topic halfway through the article to write about bandits (although I think we’d call them “kidnappers" or “terrorists" today).

The “outrage” to which my grandmother referred was the kidnapping of passengers on the Shanghai Express in 1923. (This incident was the inspiration for the 1932 movie, Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich.) Lucy Aldrich (see footnote three below) had the presence of mind to bury her jewels and after she was rescued my grandfather helped her find them and dig them up!

Before I turn it over to my grandmother, I should note that Reynolda House in Winston-Salem, NC is having a course on the "Babcock Rules" to the Fascinating Game of Mah Jong starting on August 12, 2014. There is a connection to the Reynolda House as Joe Babcock's brother, Charles, married Mary Reynolds, whose father built Reynolda House.

An early edition of Joe Babcock’s Rules for Mah Jongg.

I've added a few pictures that were not in the original article, although the one immediately below appeared in a related article in the same issue.

From the Newspaper Archive of The Catalina Islander

April 16, 1924

By Norma Babcock[1]

(Mrs. Joseph Park Babcock, wife of the exponent of mah jongg)

Owing to the interest I find everywhere in things Chinese, and the game Mah Jongg and its origin, I shall try to tell the Islander readers a brief story of this fascinating game.

My husband,[2] when but 19, graduated as honor man from the civil engineering class of Purdue University; then entered the Standard Oil class for foreign service. Within six months after his arrival in China be was given the post as manager of the Standard Oil Company’s Peking office.

Young Joe Babcock in China.

Within the first six months in China he gained a good working knowledge of the Chinese language. In less than a year he was conducting his office without an interpreter. Of course, as we all know, people learn languages much more easily when they are young, and at that time my husband was only twenty years of age.

Even in those early days he went on frequent journeys into the interior. In this way, and because of his knowledge of their language, he was soon initiated into the mysteries of the Chinese tile game. He was always very fond of games such as bridge, and the great American game of poker.

When you add to these an insatiable curiosity, it is easy to see how he became interested in these Chinese games. In Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai, and many other cities of North China and Manchuria, he saw and studied these various games.

Six or seven years ago we were living in the tiny foreign colony in Soochow. There were only twelve people in the community where we lived, but we were only a short distance from the high wall of the Chinese City, which held a population of half a million Chinese.

Situated as we were, in close contact with interesting Chinese people, we had few amusements in our small community of Americans and Europeans. My husband became an expert player and close student of the Chinese game, as it was played in Soochow.

Finally he tried to get the English numerals placed in the corner of the tiles, as you see them today. While there were several small shops where sets of these game pieces were made, not a single workman cared to attempt the making of strange English numbers and letters, which meant nothing at all to them. The Chinese think all of us are a bit queer, anyhow, and to their way of thinking, it was just another mad idea of those weird foreigners, which they would soon forget.

But they did not reckon with the stick-to-it-iveness which is an American characteristic! My husband finally persuaded one of them to try it. It was a great failure, for they had the “E” carefully drawn on the South Wind, the North where West should have been, and many other discrepancies. When told that they were badly marked, and almost all wrong, the outcry, which is characteristic of all Chinese shop keepers, was heard: “Lose money! Lose money!”

After assuring the man that the spoiled tiles would be paid for, he finally consented to try again. After several attempts he eventually succeeded in marking the first set of tiles with the properly placed foreign letters and numerals.

This very man, Wong Liang Sung, is today the acknowledged plutocrat of the mah jongg industry among the Chinese, and I am sure that he offers up daily blessings to the Shades of his Ancestors for one very obstinate American who forced him to change what is known as Chinese “old custom.”

Now let me tell you something about banditry: If any of you are planning to visit the Orient, don’t let these bandit stories frighten you. Chinese bandits are not such bad people, after all. We have been living for the last three years in the bandit-infested province of Shantung, and but two and one-half hours away by rail from Licheng, which was where the outrage occurred last spring. An express train was derailed, forty or fifty white people taken prisoners, and carried into the hills. Miss Lucy Aldrich,[3] a sister-in-law of John D. Rockeleller, was among those captured. One of the bandits aided her in making her escape within a few days after her capture. She was brought to Tsinan, our home city, where she received medical treatment for her injured feet, as the bandits had forced their prisoners to walk over the sharp rocks when they took them into the hills.

She was accompanied by this Chinese bandit, whom she termed “her bandit.” This bandit lived in our servant’s quarters for more than a month and it took a little diversion to get him to leave. He complained that he feared to return to his native haunts and fellow-bandits as he really was a lazy fellow—not like the American tramp. He had found a comfortable home and board, so why worry. My husband finally took him on as a night watchman and it took but three days of this type of work to rid ourselves of him. He said it was too much work to walk every hour to punch the time-clock and on the third day he resigned.

(Editor’s Note—Mrs. Joseph Park Babcock, who has been feted as the “Mah Jongg Queen” by Pasadena and Los Angeles society for the past few weeks spent Sunday as the guest of Mrs. Miles Overholt.[4] The dainty little visitor will leave for San Francisco the latter part of the week. Mrs. Overholt will accompany Mrs. Babcock to the northern city in the interests of mah jongg publicity.)

Joe Babcock teaching Douglas Fairbanks how to play Mah Jongg in the 1920s.

  1. 1890–1981.  ↩

  2. Joseph Park Babcock (1893–1948) went on to attend Yale Law School and became Chief Counsel for General Electric.  ↩

  3. Lucy Truman Aldrich (1869–1955) was the oldest surviving child of Sen. Nelson W. Aldrich and Abby Pearce (Chapman) Aldrich. She never married, and lived in the family home at 110 Benevolent St. in Providence for most of her life, but traveled extensively in Europe and Asia. On one trip to China in 1923, she was captured by armed bandits and held for two days before her release. She was an active art collector, especially in the fields of porcelain and Asian textiles. She donated much of her collection to the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art, and was a member of its Museum Committee as well. Her sister Abby married John D. Rockefeller Jr. (This information courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society.)  ↩

  4. Mrs. Miles Overholt’s was born Alma Staheli in Switzerland in 1889 and moved with her family to California in 1919. She headed the publicity department for Catalina island from the 1920s until WWII. She wrote a book called, The Catalina Story and was a correspondent for the Los Angeles Examiner. She died in 1972.  ↩

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