Years before Jenn Lui and partner Alan Chen met and opened up the two-level, restaurant-slash-snack-shop Baba’s House in Oakland, they both held a deep fascination with mahjong. Growing up in the Bay Area — in Daly City for Lui, in San Jose for Chen — mahjong, with its white tiles and detailed characters on its face, was a part of family life. Older relatives would often play in the evenings at family parties as younger kids would sit nearby and watch. But often, children weren’t invited to play and instead were admonished. “I would ask my mom to teach me,” Chen says, “and she’d say, ‘No, don’t gamble,’ and then proceed to play. I think a lot of us grew up not learning it, but watching and then having to learn for ourselves after some time.”
So when Lui and Chen opened up Baba’s House, they decided to make space for mahjong. The second story of the business is a snack shop selling specialty Asian goods, but there’s also a room for mahjong. Inside, four-sided mahjong tables, tiles, and stools similar to the ones Lui’s relatives would use during games fill the space. In some ways, it’s a room packed with nostalgia, but updated for a younger generation of players with moody blue-purple lighting, flashy tiles, and drinks. When Lui toured the space, she says the room was meant as extra storage. But she couldn’t get the idea of having an area dedicated to mahjong out of her head.
“That one small room just really sparked something in me,” Lui says. “I really wanted to build something speakeasy-like, but also have a mahjong table that’s dedicated there because it fits into this idea of a little, underground taboo bar.”
Baba’s House isn’t the only local restaurant bringing mahjong into its space. Mamahuhu, chef Brandon Jew’s casual mini-chain of Chinese American restaurants in the Bay Area, recently launched Mahjong Mondays, during which pros and novices can show up and play every other week at various Mamahuhu locations. The flagship location of Boichik Bagels on Sixth Street in Berkeley also hosts mahjong games, led by local mahjong instructor and author Toby Salk. Baba’s House has even taken mahjong on the road, so to speak, bringing the game to a Lunar New Year Nightlife event at Cal Academy of Sciences. Elsewhere, the game is also popping up in places like social club the Aster in Hollywood.
Baba’s House hosts mahjong nights on the first and third Saturday of the month. Novices are welcome, and the nights typically begin with a tutorial followed by gameplay from 7 to 11 p.m. at the four tables. It’s become popular, capping out at 30 people in the small room, and a positive space for curious mahjong players. “We’re not really trying to judge anybody for what they know or don’t know,” Chen says.
There are a few reasons for the growing popularity of a game that was born in the mid-1800s in China. Chen and Lui say its rooted in culture and nostalgia, as well as a more recent need for a tactile, post-pandemic activity. It’s also a good way to make friends. Chen says he enjoys the raucous, social aspect of playing with a group, while Lui mentions her love of how “extra sassy” everyone gets at the table. “Honestly, it’s always good vibes,” Chen says. “So when you sit down and play with new people, it isn’t so intimidating. Everybody’s learning together and we’re all enjoying the culture.”
Emily Winston of Boichik Bagels has her own familial and cultural connection to mahjong and found the idea of hosting a regular mahjong gathering at her Berkeley bagel factory appealing. While she never learned to play, Winston has memories from her childhood in New York of her Jewish mother playing mahjong with friends, alongside a spread of snacks and coffee. In the 1950s, mahjong became a popular game among Jewish women, even becoming a “hallmark of Jewish American culture,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Much like Chen and Lui, Winston wasn’t allowed to be part of her mother’s mahjong nights — although perhaps more related to Winston’s mother wanting “adult time,” she speculates — but with sit-down space at the new Boichik factory, she saw mahjong as a way to bring the community together.
Already, she plans to host a regular Mahjong Monday for players to informally gather and play at Boichik in north Berkeley, in addition to the monthly, more formal, hosted games with Salk, during which players are required to at least know the basics. “It makes me happy,” Winston says. “It just feels like it’s bringing another piece of my nostalgic childhood experience to the party of what we’re doing.”
As for why mahjong’s become popular within food spaces in particular, Winston says when you’re playing the game for hours, you’re typically snacking the whole time. “It works with food,” she says. “You’re eating with one hand and then moving tiles with the other hand, and chatting with your friends. And it’s just kind of sweet.”
Lui looks at mahjong almost as part of bar culture but in a home setting, where players are drinking tea or alcohol and also playing — and with the occasional break to eat a little bit before returning to the table. “There’s always definitely some sort of food component,” Lui says of family games. “When you step into someone’s house, there’s always food for your guests.”
It’s that sense of home that Chen and Lui are trying to create with Baba’s House, and, by extension, through these games. They want guests to feel welcome, to feel like they have comrades at the table — albeit with competitive and jovial shit-talking — and a space full of laughter. A tradition at Baba’s House is that when a player wins, the entire room claps. “It feels very welcoming, just like your family, your home,” Lui says. “That’s really the feeling that people get at the space. It’s warm and inviting, with the freedom to be yourself at the same time.”