My Love of One-Offs

Gregg Swain is an art enthusiast and collector of vintage mahjong sets and accessories. She is also co-author of Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game, a book of gorgeous photography and history that highlights materials, designs, boxes, and accessories collectors look for in vintage mahjong sets.

I love Mahjong because so many things I care about are present at the same time: I play with beautiful tiles, I give my brain a workout trying to figure out what to do with those 13 pieces in front of me, and most importantly, I enjoy the friendship around the table.

I am drawn to two very different types of sets: truly beautiful tiles intended for an upscale market, and those crafted with love, often bits of folk-art, made with certain people in mind. This article is about the latter: quirky, unusual sets, which would have brought much happiness to their players. Their true origins are mysteries, so I invent “background” stories about them.

I was drawn to this set by several attributes: the Craks look like they are about to run off the tile faces, and the Flowers are an interesting mix of images. My two favorites tiles are the East man and the One Bam. I imagine a father carved this set for his family to enjoy.

Tile faces were carved, painted and shellacked, and few pieces are identical in size.
The flowers
One Bam and Chinese Man Flower

This is one of my favorites. It “got me” with its Diving Bird One Bam and very elaborate Craks and carefree style of the Winds. Missing tiles were replaced over the years, (seen in the photo), showing how much this set meant to its owners. There’s a baseball theme: the Dots look like balls, and the White Dragons resemble the playing field. I have always gotten a POW feel from the tiles, and I believe it possible the set was made in an Japanese-American internment camp in the US during WW2.

Intricate designs were carved and then filled in ink or paint. Note the unusual design of the three-pip face on the hand-carved die.

I love the stylized images, and the cheerful Dots are delightful. The One Bam birds have a jaunty look to them, and the miniature box is adorable. I imagine this set was made by a father for his young daughter.

Tiny uniform sized tiles with stylized characters and original painted designs and counters.
The beautifully crafted small box.

I bought this set because of the unusual One Bams. Since there are no Flowers, no Western letters or numbers, and the print on the box is Japanese, I’d guess this set was made for Riichi. It might have been a father and son collaboration: the elder carved the designs and the younger drew the wans and the Dots. The Dots are still readable (they were drawn in pencil and then painted), but sadly the wans have almost completely disappeared.

Some tiles were carved and painted and others only painted.

When I bought the set, I knew it was one of the most charming ones I had ever seen. The arrangements of the Dots and Bams are quite clever, and the Craks and Winds have their own unique personalities. And the Dragons! This set also looks like a family collaboration, with adults doing some of the work: Arabic numbers and Western letters, and the arrangements of the Bams and Dots. The children (I see possibly the work of two or more young ones) were given the liberty to do their own versions of wans and Dragons. Given the lack of Flowers and that one of the White Dragons looks like Godzilla (the one standing on his hind legs) I think this set was made for a Japanese family for Riichi.

All tiles were painted.
Close-up of the dragons.

I hope that you enjoy these wonderful labors of love. Be on the lookout and add folk art sets to your own personal collection. They’re all about love.

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