Mahjong is a fast-paced game that is hugely popular across Asia and around the world. Players sit around a table corresponding to a point on the compass and while playing, aim to form sets of three or four sequenced or matching tiles. Throughout the game, players have 13 tiles in hand with the pickup of a 14th needed to win.
Put simply, here are the options that in combination compose a winning hand:
- Chow – set of three tiles of the same suit and consecutive numbers.
- Pung – set of three identical tiles
- Chow/Pung plus a pair of identical tiles known as, the ‘eye’
More critical than in most card games, Mahjong requires a lot of communication, negotiation and strategy.
If you haven’t already watched Crazy Rich Asians, scroll no further. Here comes a breakdown of the meaning behind the pivotal Mahjong scene, packed with symbolism.
In the movie, the tension between Rachel and Nick’s mother, Eleanor is evident. Towards the end of the film, Eleanor is invited to play mahjong with Rachel and is offered the ‘East’ seat – representing Asia, while Rachel sits across her in the ‘West’ seat- America.
In conversation during the game, Rachel asks why Eleanor does not approve of her. Eleanor states how Asian Americans are American at heart and therefore do not count as Asian, or ‘kaki lang’ (Hokkien for ‘our kind of people’) to her. At this moment the camera notes Eleanor is trying to create a winning hand from a pung – symbolising extended family that are all ‘kaki lang’.
Also displayed on the table are bamboo tiles that have been discarded. These represent the Cantonese term ‘jook sing’ meaning ‘empty bamboo’ which is used here as a Chinese equivalent to the Asian-American term ‘banana’ – yellow on the outside, white on the inside. These tiles are dispersed alongside East and West ones, symbolising they are not truly part of either side – exactly how Eleanor perceives Rachel.
As Rachel draws the eight of bamboo, she reveals to Eleanor that Nick proposed to her, promising he would walk away from his family and wealth to be with her. Important in Chinese culture, the number eight is considered a sign of happiness, prosperity and wealth. Rachel needs this tile to win, but based on her observation, Eleanor needs it too.
Rachel explains that Eleanor has no guaranteed winning outcome in Rachel and Nick’s relationship. If they marry without approval, Nick will lose his family and mother. If Nick leaves – he may resent Eleanor forever, also losing her in a way. For this reason, Rachel decided to take control of the situation and choose for Nick.
She then gives up the eight of bamboo as a discard – ruining her chance of winning, while explaining that when Nick finds someone Eleanor approves of in the future it will be because of her – a poor, raised by a single mother, low-class immigrant nobody.
Eleanor picks up the tile and declares victory and Rachel reveals her hand which would have won – showing Eleanor what she gave up.
In folding her hand, Rachel demonstrated to Eleanor that she loves Nick enough to put his future ahead of hers. She shows that she understands family always comes first – something Eleanor didn’t think a jook sing (Asian American) would comprehend. Thirdly, Rachel proves herself as strong, courageous, and self-sacrificing; characteristics Eleanor relates to in herself.
The whole mahjong scene in Crazy Rich Asians is packed with symbolism and is a significant turning point in the film.
If you haven’t seen the film and read this far anyway, now when you see it you will understand the importance and meaning behind this scene.