This Lunar New Year, the 15th and final day of which falls on Friday, February 26, I found myself at the mahjong table more times than the last five years put together. It is a game I rarely play because I am not good at it, relying more on luck than any skill in my frequently bungled attempts at winning a hand. I learned the game as a child by watching my father and his friends play at our home, but it was not so much the game itself that I was interested in but the whole experience: the adult chatter above the shuffling, clattering tiles; the vividly coloured words and pictures on one side of the pristine white acrylic pieces; the dialogue between fingers and tiles that is as fluid and mesmerising as a dance, punctuated by sharp thumps on the table signalling delight or frustration. My mother was less keen because she always had to rid the house of cigarette smoke and profanity after the last guest left. To this day, I know little about mahjong beyond the basic rules and I enjoy the social aspect of the game more than anything else. Besides, I play with such small stakes that winning was never the point. I have therefore never had the urge nor the courage to enter the dodgy mahjong dens that are so much a part of the Hong Kong landscape. Contrary to popular belief, mahjong is not an ancient game. The first manual for the game appeared in 1914, which stated that “mahjong, which originated in Ningbo, is only about 30 years old”. Other books from the early 20th century also suggested that mahjong only came into being in the latter half of the 19th century. Apart from the port city of Ningbo, Fujian and Guangdong provinces are also possible contenders for the birthplace of the game. Mahjong probably started off as a modified version of earlier Chinese card games, and went through a process of evolution before settling down to its modern form. Even in the present day, there are multiple variations in the game, such as the total number of tiles played, scoring systems, criteria for winning hands, and so on. Besides the different playing styles within Greater China, the Americans, Japanese, Koreans, Malaysians, Singaporeans and Vietnamese have their own way of playing the game. Traditional mahjong tiles are made of bamboo, ivory and bone, but tiles made from natural materials tend to discolour or crack with time, which makes fair play impossible as players can identify covered tiles by their imperfections. For this reason, the practically indestructible acrylic or plastic tiles have become the norm. Mahjong gained popularity so quickly that by 1930, some 50 or so years after its emergence, the famous Chinese intellectual Hu Shih (1891-1962) was already denouncing mahjong as one of the “four evils” that plagued China, along with opium, bound feet and the eight-legged essay (a traditional and formulaic form of writing that stifled intellectual development). In the ideologically charged years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949, mahjong was condemned as a symbol of capitalist corruption and prohibited throughout the nation. The ban was officially lifted in 1985. In an about-turn of communist puritanism, China’s national sporting authority in July 1998 even laid down the rules and regulations for “international mahjong”, a standardised version that is used in international competitions and gradually gaining popularity among regular players. My aversion to high-stakes gambling and the reluctance of friends who are skilled players to indulge me have long conspired to reduce my forays to the mahjong table. However, a fortuitous combination of factors this Lunar New Year has brought many hours of much-needed cheer to our lives. The fellowship of four at the table, with minuscule stakes that add a frisson of excitement into the game, is one of life’s delights.