Ho Sau-Mei, a slight, spry 62-year-old, is the only female mahjong tile carver left in Hong Kong — that she knows of.
Her shop, Kam Fat Mahjong, is a tiny alcove squeezed beneath a staircase, about 6 feet wide and twice as deep. It’s partially enclosed by a glass-topped counter that displays tiles engraved with various suits: bamboo sticks, wheels, and Chinese characters. A dust-caked glass case lining one wall contains stacks and stacks of others, leaving just enough space for a yellowing photo of Ho at age 13, when she first learned how to carve from a sifu, or mahjong master. The shop was her family’s home when they first settled in Hung Hom, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, in the early 1960s.
Fluorescent lights and natural sunlight keep the place lit, but Ho’s eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. She relies on a small wooden box with an affixed bulb that emits a glow directly over her workspace, which also serves to warm up tiles and make them more pliable to carve.
“That way, I don’t need to use as much strength,” says Ho.
She mentions carpal tunnel syndrome. Spending long days hunched over the counter at the front of the shop, where the magic happens, isn’t exactly easy on the joints. But everyone gets pains, Ho says, even if you don’t have a job like this. It now takes her about four days to complete a full set of 144 tiles; in her younger years, she carved an entire set in one day.
The precise origins of mahjong are unknown, according to a 25-page paper booklet Ho hands me called “Standard Rules for the Chinese Domino Game of Mah Jong.” The four-person game has been a crucial part of Chinese culture, often played with family members around a square table, since the mid- to late-1800s, and was brought over to the U.S. in the 1920s. Rules vary among countries, and sometimes even among families within a community: the number of tiles used, how players tally points, the suits on faces of tiles.
The first step in Ho’s process begins with ordering acrylic plastic tiles from a factory in China. It’s her biggest pain point, since delivery takes so much time. Those types of factories don’t exist in Hong Kong anymore.
She begins each day at 9:30 a.m., after a dim sum breakfast with her retired husband down the street from the shop. Ho chooses one of five metal tools to begin chiseling, depending on the tile’s design and the depth of the grooves. She purchases some utensils; others she jerry-rigs on her own. One three-inch chisel has been in Ho’s toolkit for 20 years: It was eight inches, she laughs, but she’s wittled it down to three from multiple sharpenings.
In one fluid motion, Ho rotates her hand around a tile, applying pressure to the chisel with her middle finger. It’s mesmerizing to watch: In the time it takes for us to speak, she carves five or six tiles.
Once Ho finishes up for the day at 2:30 p.m., her husband typically gets to work painting Ho’s handicraft. He slathers the entire surface of the tile in standardized shades of blue, red, green, or black paint purchased from the hardware store across the street, then removes the excess using a metal scraper.
In the 1980s, hand-crafted mahjong shops and parlors peppered the city, Ho recalls. But carving tiles by hand is a dying craft. By Ho’s estimate, only two or three other sifus are left in the city, all of whom are men. The rest of the landscape has migrated to machine-based production.
“Everyone just wants something cheap,” Ho says. She motions to her heart. “It causes internal pain. But what else can I do? I can’t change my career at this point.”
She supplements her business with machine-carved tiles too, of course. But most of the demand is for custom handmade orders for foreign tourists from Korea or New York who are seeking retro, vintage souvenirs.
For years, the Hong Kong government has been trying to redevelop the neighborhood of Hung Hom. So things are up in the air for Ho. Property in any other area is too expensive, she says, so she likely wouldn’t be able to relocate the shop if forced to give up its current location. She shrugs, but there’s a nostalgic glint in her eye.
Ho grew up in the area — this exact square of land, to be precise. Her family moved into the alcove the storefront now occupies when Ho was 5, and her father opened the shop. When she married at age 20, she moved into her husband’s house just four miles away.
“All my memories are right here,” Ho explains. She began working at 13, and took over the shop when her mother passed away a couple decades later.
The business fell to her because, as a girl, she had received the fewest opportunities for education among her siblings. One of her brothers moved to New York and the other is a driver. “More stress was on the men to be breadwinners and bring home money,” Ho says.
An apprenticeship with a mahjong master normally lasts about three years, depending on how smart and coordinated you are, Ho says. At the peak of her family’s business, her father operated three shops in Hong Kong, and sifus from mainland China came over to train Ho and others.
When asked about her favorite part of the work — what she enjoys most — Ho peers at me, perplexed. “I have to do all of it. There’s nothing I like or don’t like,” she explains matter-of-factly. “The whole process is what it is.”
Her husband pipes up. “I like the circle tiles best, because they’re the easiest to make.”
The dissipation of the art of hand-carved tiles doesn’t necessarily correlate to mahjong’s popularity. That trend line continues upward: While the game remains more recognizable across Asia, it’s finding an increasingly larger American audience. App stores are filled with free online mahjong games.
Ho will occasionally play a few rounds with her relatives before dinner. (Her husband is quick to point out that he doesn’t play because his eyes aren’t as good.) It’s frequently said that mahjong is one of the best ways to prevent Alzheimer’s, and, well, there’s some physical activity involved in moving the tiles around. Ho calls it “dry swimming.”
She takes a sip of milk, waiting for the paint to dry. “You have to be humble,” she says, using a Chinese phrase that roughly means one keeps learning for as long as one works. You can never be the very best.
For that reason alone, the work doesn’t get monotonous. “If I didn’t have this shop, life would be even more boring,” she laughs and turns to her husband. “What else would we be doing? Sitting in the park all day?”
Price: $290 (HK$2,280) for a full set of 144 tiles
This interview was translated from Cantonese by Virginia Chan, who runs the food tour company Humid with a Chance of Fishballs. It specializes in taking guests on an insider look at Hong Kong daily life.
All photos courtesy of Megan Hess.