One of the most beautiful things about Crazy Rich Asians is how it refuses to explain many of its most intrinsically Asian elements. That lack of training wheels is intentional: As director Jon M. Chu told me, “We didn’t want to give people an excuse to think of this world as some kind of obscure, exotic fantasyland — this is a real place, with real culture, history and tradition, and instead of just giving them answers to their questions, we want them to have conversations.”
The movie’s Singapore-specific local color and broadly Asian cultural nuances are indeed fairly Google-able, and can readily be contextualized through polite discussions with actual Asian people. But there’s one scene in particular that has been resiliently enigmatic to audiences of many backgrounds, both Asian and non-Asian … and it’s a pivotal one: the mahjong scene.
That’s especially true for fans of the book, who won’t recognize it; it’s original to the movie. It was inserted in part because Michelle Yeoh, who delivers an amazing steel-and-silk performance as the movie’s main antagonist, refused to play the stock villainous tiger mom from the book. This scene provides her with critical impetus toward her eventual redemption.
But it’s also true for people who don’t understand the complex rules of the game, which aren’t intuitive and are often different depending on the region of the world. So here’s a quick primer on the game of mahjong itself, as well as its significance to the film in that pivotal scene. Spoilers abound below, so if you haven’t yet watched the deliriously warm and funny movie, crawl out from under that rock and see it before reading further.
A quick primer on mahjong itself. A fast-paced, rummy-style game in which four players attempt to form sets of three or four matching or sequenced tiles, it’s hugely popular not only across Asia but around the world. Its origins are Chinese: All the way back in 1927, about a century after the game was invented, the Chinese scholar and essayist Hu Shi complained that mahjong was so popular that it had become China’s “national pastime,” calculating that the millions of games of mahjong played each day by Chinese were the equivalent of 4 million hours of wasted time daily.
But most Chinese don’t see the game as “wasted time.” In fact, despite his grousing, Hu himself was an inveterate player who spent many an evening tossing the tiles. Mao Zedong once said the game should not be underestimated — because “If you know how to play it, you’ll have a better understanding of the relationship between chance and necessity. There’s philosophy in mahjong.”
Mahjong remains extraordinarily popular among Chinese immigrants and beyond, and it’s featured in both the film The Joy Luck Club and the TV show Fresh Off the Boat, both of which depict Asian-American post-immigrant life. (Mandatory disclosure: My son Hudson Yang plays Eddie on Fresh Off the Boat; Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu plays his mother.)
When asked about the mahjong scene, Chu told me, “Never thought we’d have to explain it,” and laughed. “I wanted it to be very specifically choreographed, and obviously, for it to happen that fast is almost impossible. But I wanted to intercut the game with the conversation, so it was critical for them to know exactly what they were doing at every moment. We got a mahjong expert — basically a gambling addict! — to help choreograph that game, to make it authentic.”
The closest Western analog to Mahjong might be gin rummy. The goal of the game is to reach certain combinations of tiles before your opponents. Tiles have numbers and suits, which can be combined into winning hands through sets of either matching numbers or suited numerically sequential tiles, just like in gin rummy. Each player’s hand is 13 tiles throughout the game, though the pickup of a 14th tile is needed to win.
Here is a very simplified explanation of the options that, in combination, can compose winning hands:
- Chow, which is three tiles in a sequential number sequence of the same suit
- Pong, which is three of the exact same tile
- Plus a pair of the exact same tile, called the “eye”
Communication, negotiation, strategy, and even cooperation are far more critical in mahjong than in most card games. Watching what your opponents discard as well as the completed sets they lay out in front of them — when one steals a tile that another player has discarded, one must expose the completed set — is the key to understanding what each is attempting to accomplish.
What the climactic mahjong scene means
In the movie, the mahjong scene takes place in a pivotal scene after our protagonist Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu, has been rejected by her boyfriend Nick’s mother, Eleanor (played by Michelle Yeoh). This is because Eleanor learns that Rachel was born to a single mother who fled China for the States. However, unbeknownst to Eleanor, Nick has gone against his mother’s wishes and proposed to Rachel anyway.
In the mahjong scene, Rachel and Eleanor go head to head right after this stunning twist. Rachel invites Eleanor to meet with her at a mahjong parlor — a gambling house frequented mostly by working- or middle-class older folks who rent tables by the hour. The persistent clacking of tiles is a sound familiar to anyone who has been around people playing mahjong.
When Eleanor arrives, she takes the open seat across from Rachel and is offered the role of dealer — the “East” seat. The four seats in mahjong are named after the compass directions, which plays an important role both in the rules of the game and in the symbolism of the scene. Eleanor, in the role of the “East,” representing Asia, is the player in control. Rachel, sitting across from her, represents America — the “West.”
Early in the scene, Eleanor completes a “pong,” or a matched set of tiles. This move demonstrates that Eleanor plans to win using the strategy of matched tiles, and she’s making Rachel aware. In this moment, Eleanor tells Rachel that her mother taught her how to play too.
As the conversation continues, Rachel asks Eleanor why she didn’t like her from the very beginning — even before her family history was revealed. Eleanor expounds on the difference between Asians and Americans, noting how even though Asian Americans look Asian, they are American at heart. Referencing a Hokkien term that means “our kind of people,” she says that Asian Americans are not kaki lang. Remember, in this game, Eleanor is trying to create a winning hand comprising all matches of the same exact tile — an “extended family” that’s metaphorically composed of kaki lang.
The camera then cuts to show a number of discarded bamboo tiles. Discarded bamboo calls to mind a frequently used term for Westernized overseas Asians, this one Cantonese: jook sing, which literally means “empty bamboo.” It’s a slang term that’s the Chinese equivalent of the Asian-American term “banana” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside — cited earlier in the film by Peik Lin (the frenetically hilarious Awkwafina). The “empty” bamboo tiles are scattered alongside the tiles for East and West, not truly part of either, representing Eleanor’s perception of Rachel.
At this point, Rachel drops the bomb on Eleanor that Nick proposed to her, telling her that he said he’d be willing to walk away from everything — his family, his family’s wealth — to be with her. Right as Rachel is saying this, she draws the most important tile in the game: an eight of bamboo.
The number eight is of huge symbolic importance to the Chinese; it resembles the character for fortune and is considered a sign of wealth, prosperity, and happiness. It’s why so many Chinese license plates, phone numbers, and even street addresses contain eights. Monterey Park, the first city in San Gabriel Valley, California, to become a suburban destination for wealthy Chinese, was considered a particularly propitious place to live because it had an 818 area code.
While an eight doesn’t have special value in the game of mahjong, we see that the eight of bamboo is also the one tile Rachel needs to complete her hand. This is a winning tile for her. But Rachel knows something else, based on her observation of how the game has played out (remember, she’s a game theory professor!): It’s Eleanor’s winning tile too.
She then discloses to Eleanor that she turned Nick down. Eleanor is dumbfounded. “Only a fool folds a winning hand,” she says, referring to Nick’s proposal.
This is critical, because in the very first scene of the movie, Rachel demonstrated through a poker game with one of her TAs that to be successful in any game where psychology and choice are a factor, you can’t play “not to lose” — you have to play to win.
Rachel explains: When it comes to her marriage with Nick, Eleanor has guaranteed there’s no winning outcome for them. Nick choosing Rachel means he’d lose his mother and his family. Nick choosing his family means he might resent Eleanor forever — thus losing his mother anyway. Lose-lose.
So she decided to seize control of the situation and choose for him. But she doesn’t want it to happen without Eleanor knowing exactly why it’s happening and what Rachel is giving up to make it possible.
She tells Eleanor that she knows Nick will eventually find someone else, someone that his family approves of — that’s what every generation of Youngs has done before him, after all. And while her own heart will be broken, as she says, she loves him so much that she is willing to suffer if it means that Nick will keep the thing that is at the heart of Asian culture, and of his story: his family.
That’s when Rachel throws out the eight of bamboo as a discard — folding her winning hand, knowing that Eleanor will pick it up and declare victory. While this happens, she explains that when Nick finds the proper match in the future, she wants Eleanor to understand that the only reason it occurred was because a “poor, raised by a single mother, low-class immigrant nobody” — Rachel — made it possible.
She then reveals her hand, which would have won, making it clear to the whole table what she’s done, and walks away.
In this move, Rachel has demonstrated to Eleanor three critical things. The first is that she loves Nick enough to put his future ahead of hers. The second is that she understands that family should always come first, something that Eleanor suspected she didn’t comprehend as a jook sing Asian American. And the third is that Rachel is strong, self-sacrificing, and courageous — a lot like Eleanor herself. Instead of “never being enough” for Nick, a line Eleanor uses to surgically destroy Rachel in an earlier scene, she’s most likely exactly what Nick needs.
Knowing all of this context isn’t necessary for the scene to work, but it certainly adds depth to understand the symbolism of the game.
This essay was adapted from a post on Angry Asian Man. For a more detailed look at mahjong, read here.
Jeff Yang is a co-host of the podcast They Call Us Bruce, a featured contributor for CNN Opinion, and a columnist for South China Morning Post’s Inkstone magazine. His elder son, Hudson Yang, plays Eddie on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.
First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.