Monthly Archives: September 2014

Reader Tony Watson, whose google site is listed in the Resources area, has written a wonderful piece on hand-made sets.

Thank you Tony

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Close ups of each set now follow:

First set, French, possibly made by CF





2nd set, a tiny one from Austria. with applied label




3rd set, a very unusual one




4th set, handmade in Belgium of at least three different woods




The book I wrote with Ann Israel is being published by Tuttle. To see more about it:


To order it click here:

or here from Amazon



Written by guest writer WS


In his  semi-autobiographical novel EMPIRE OF THE SUN, G. J. Ballard describes what befell British citizenry in Shanghai China during the Japanese Occupation of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). It depicts events immediately following December 7, 1941, when Imperial Japan, having attacked Pearl Harbor, took over and occupied the long-established American and British settlements of the city. British and American civilians were rounded up by Japanese soldiers, and many were marched to their deaths in brutal Japanese internment camps. Ballard was lucky; his parents survived the death squads and he was reunited with them after the war. 

Others weren’t so fortunate.
A small leather beat-up Mah Jong case tells another tale about another family who might have escaped the horrible chaos of 1941 Shanghai. 
Sometime before the Autumn of 1939, a certain Mr. E A. R. Fowles, for reasons currently unknown to us, booked first-class Stateroom No. 205 on the Japanese N.Y.K. liner M.S.Terukuni Maru scheduled from Shanghai to London. We know all this because his name is on the luggage sticker affixed to the Mah Jong case. 
What is missing on the sticker is a date of embarkation. Also unknown is who he traveled with. Moreover, until I can find a deck plan of this liner, I don’t know if this was a suite or a single room.
We are not exactly sure who this man was, but according to immigration records, there was a Mr. E.A.R. Fowles residing in Shanghai who went there with his wife and three children in 1925 on the P&O Liner Morea. We don’t know Fowles’ occupation, but most likely he worked in the British finance world along the Bund in Shanghai and lived quite elegantly with Chinese servants in the British Settlement District.
Here’s what else we know about our Mr. Fowles; he was a prominent “rate-paying” resident on Shanghai’s Municipal Council, present at its Annual meeting on April 14, 1937 and accorded “two votes” out of a total of 251.
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At any rate, the total number of that august Shanghai Council, with a list composed mostly Anglican surnames, numbered just 334.  Since there were 60,000 business people—not including Chinese— living in Shanghai since the early 1930’s, the Fowles family was on quite an exclusive list. 
E.A.R. Fowles’s name doesn’t appear anywhere again on the 468 page report.
Fowles, along with the Council was charged with maintaining a standard of living for the Brits in the long-established “International Sector” extant since the 1800’s— from The Library and Orchestra Committees, to the drinking water, medical services and the police force. It also charged its ex-pat community to coexist with the Chinese, their Chinese servants and the increasingly hostile Japanese military. The 1937 minutes for The Council state what must have become a fast developing ad-hoc mission:
" The duty of the Council during these abnormal times is to adopt every means in its power to ensure the safety of life and property within the area under its control, and to preserve the peace, order and good government of the International Settlement…All persons are urged,… to bear cheerfully any inconvenience to which they may be subjected and to assist generally in preserving calm, peace and good order.”

Looking back, their society was a powder keg about to be lit. Indeed, the “Emergency Branch” report of the Council continues:
[The Ambulance Service] was constantly in demand and handled no less than 901 casualties suffering from bomb, shell, shrapnel…from hundreds of injured at the aerial bombing at the Bund and Nanking Road,…and the striking, by an unidentified projectile,…on August 23, at which calls the casualties were so numerous and the conditions so appalling that no record of the number of patients actually conveyed in ambulances …could be kept.

Perhaps it was a family emergency abroad, or perhaps Fowles sensed the forthcoming onslaught. We don’t know if he even picked up the ship in Shanghai. Whatever happened, his proper British world was unraveling, and people were fleeing Shanghai — just as many were fleeing Nazi Germany. He must have decided it was now the time to leave. (Ironically many Jewish people fled east by ship to Shanghai during this period, and the story of the Shanghai Ghetto is a miraculous one. The Japanese, as cruel as they were during those years, were not anti-Semitic. While there were indeed wartime hardships in Shanghai for Jewish people, the Japanese would not tolerate their persecution).
At any rate, Fowles’s itinerary from China to England called for a fortnight transit across the Indian Ocean into the Suez, the Mediterranean, and up into the Thames to London with numerous ports in between. How could Japanese ships be allowed to sail into European waters in the late 1930’s when England was at war with Germany? From 1937 until 1940,  Japan was still regarded as a “neutral” country by England. Basically even though Imperial Japan’s atrocities in Mainland China— in their quest for oil and resources—resulted in such appalling massacres as in Nanking and Manchuria, diplomatic relations between the countries held and trade continued. It was only after the Japanese signed the Tripartite Act with the Nazi Germany Axis in 1940 that Japanese ships were targets for British warships.
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from Wiki
The vessel Mr. Fowles booked passage on was 505’ long, built in 1929, and thoroughly air conditioned throughout for her southern route which took two weeks. While not as grand or luxurious as an Atlantic Greyhound, Terukuni Maru could carry 121 First-Class passengers, 68 Second Class with a Japanese crew of 177. I think his trip happened sometime after 1937, which I’ll explain below.
Most likely, Fowles’ splendid Chinese Bakelite Mah Jong set remained in his stateroom. 
I certainly don’t think it ever made out of his room and into the ship’s more public First Class Salon depicted below.
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Picture of lounge from Antique Postcards
Why? Because the tiles have Chinese propaganda vilifying his Japanese hosts. Japan marched into Shanghai on July 7, 1937, and took it over. It is highly doubtful a set such as this one could have been made in Mainland China after that date. This is why I think the set must have been manufactured, most probably in Hong Kong in 1938, soon after Japanese hostilities began with China and why I place him on the this ship at about this time.
This item could be considered contraband. It’s subject matter was taboo to the Japanese and certainly to the crew. How did it get onboard through customs? Was Mr. Fowles so important his luggage was never checked? Was he a diplomat?  Again we can only guess.
The message on the tiles takes no guesswork, however.
Look closely at this Flower Tile of what can only be a kimono and clog-clad Japanese man running from a house with a bomb aiming right at him.
Other Flower tiles are equally anti-Japanese:
The tiles depict Chinese troops defending their country. The top row reads: "Aviation to save the country." This expression was also used on War Bonds in 1941 to help the war effort against the Japanese. The bottom row calls for "a move of the troops to save territory."
The top row shows a portable canon launching artillery and an aerial bomber over a mountain range. Below is a close-up of that tile.
The phoenix and dragon are also beautiful and an interesting addition to the set. Remember the Emperor was associated with the Dragon, seen in the One Dot, and the Empress with the phoenix, seen as the One Bam. Interesting—since the monarchy had been gone for years, but perhaps a subtle reminder of old days?
Certainly this set was important to Mr. Fowles; his name was embossed in gold leaf on the back of the  set’s leather case.  
Maybe this Mah Jong set expressed his personal hopes for a free and independent China. If this is the Mr. Fowles we think it might have been, he’d lived there and raised a family for 13 years and most likely was devastated as to what was happening to his adopted city. I’d like to think that perhaps Fowles played the game in his stateroom with his family or like-minded refugees from Shanghai shouting “Mah Jong” while their room steward, a Japanese spy, listened with an ear to the door totally clueless as to what was really being thought, and what tiles were being played with.
Again, this is all vivid conjecture—we just don’t know.
We have no record of a E.A.R. Fowles debarking in London, or whatever happened to him and his family, or if he ever returned to China. We do know no Fowles were on Terukuni's May 1939 voyage as this name doesn’t appear on that passenger list. And, unless any of you have any further information on Mr. Fowles, our story ends there.
Or does it? 
Remember I said that Fowles had to have left Shanghai before Terukuni Maru’s fall sailing on September 29 1939. That was to be her final voyage; for it was 62 days later on Nov 21at 12:39 am, following inspection by Royal Navy Minesweepers off the coast of England (remember, in 1939 she was still considered neutral), she hit a floating magnetic mine, and blew up. Terukuni Maru rolled over, twin screws in the air and was gone within 45 minutes.
There was not a single life lost among the 28 passengers or 177 crew, which my friend and ocean liner expert John Maxtone-Graham told me was “quite remarkable.” Four of the eight lifeboats could not be launched as she heeled onto her starboard side.  Her sinking has been described as Japan's only  World War II casualty outside East Asia before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
I don’t think Fowles was aboard her final voyage. His surviving Mah Jong case proves it. He had 45 minutes to get off the ship. Would he go back for his beloved Mah Jong game and take it into the lifeboat? I don’t think so, for two reasons: First, the liner sank too quickly — although one passenger described a steward having the time to run quickly back to a rapidly-filling cabin to get her life vest. Second, and more importantly, if he was traveling with his family, he would first want to make sure his daughters, wife and son were put into the lifeboats. That would be his priority. While there was no panic and the Japanese crew reportedly behaved in the best traditions of the sea, certainly the scene on the boat decks was one of grave urgency.  At any rate, we have currently have no record of who the survivors were and Fowles doesn’t appear in any photos or newsreels of the disaster.
On the other hand, if the set was as dear to him as I think it was, maybe he did grab it. After all, it’s not large — only 9” x 14” and could easily fit onto his lap.
The wonders of the internet may reveal the final chapter about the real Mah Jong Treasure of a certain mysterious E. A. R. Fowles.
Our thanks to Ray Heaton for providing translations and images, and to Michael Stanwick for his research.
 The book written by Gregg Swain and Ann Israel can be found on Barnes and Noble:
and Amazon
The website for the book includes reviews of the book, and author signings and other appearances.


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From time to time we come across a set with great history. The other day I met a lovely lady named Mim whose family has owned this F. Ad. Richter set ever since they lived in Europe in the 1920s. Mim played with this set when she was a little girl, and when she moved into a retirement community a few years ago, she brought this set with her. The set has been a treasured possession for her for about 90 years. The pieces are still in the original cardboard box, four big "drawers" for the suits, Honors and Flowers, with the counters in smaller boxes forming the bottom layer. And many wonderful memories are associated with this box of 144 special tiles.

Richter was a manufacturer in Germany in those early days, and its designs are sophisticated and unusual, even in this simple wooden set. There is a special look to their images, all quite different from what we normally see. It seems the designers were given artistic freedom, and all suits, but especially the Craks and Bams, have their own style.  Even the letters and numbers have their own look, inspired by German lettering. Interestingly, even though Joseph Babcock gets credit for marketing the game in the 1920s, Richter was involved with the game years before. The story about Babcock is that he learned the game in 1917, but according to CHarli, Richter sent someone to China in 1916, during the First World War, to study the game, and the company started making sets soon thereafter, probably the first one to make them for international sale.

IMG_1662 again

As you can see here, there is a great deal of flair, even in the Winds which are quite unique in their appearance. There is a real Germanic look to the letters. The Red and Green Dragons face forward, looking directly at the viewer.


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The Dots have a very detailed One Dot, evolving into simpler designs, but still featuring the numbers with that same Germanic style.


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The Craks almost seem to leap out of the drawer!

To me, they resemble these photos by Eadward Muybridge from the late 1800s.

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But look at these designs! The Bams are fabulous. Note how the diagonal of the One Bam bird almost "morphs" into the 2 Bam bamboo shoot and into the 3 Bam. Notice how the 8 Bams altho they do look a bit like other 8 Bams, actually have four vertical stalks, two long and two short, and four short diagonals. The 5 Bams and 9 Bams are real standouts.



The last drawers that contain the wooden counters


IMG_1660and the Wind indicators, (apologies in this photograph the S is upside down).

I asked a graphic designer to tell us about the typeface used. I thought it was quite unusual, and this is what he said:

"The typography or “typeface” of the numerals on the Dots and Dragons of this set by Richter are noteworthy. While the lower numbers and the 8 are what is called a basic “Gothic style,” the “6”, “7” and “9” are in a distinctive calligraphic font which was very popular in Germany in the 20’s and 30’s called Fraktur. Basically, think of The New York Times or the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for the City of Frankfort which is still in circulation—their banners are in this font. See the example below.

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Fraktur fell out of favor in Germany bigtime after WWII but what is so delightful, it’s calligraphic numerals look somewhat “Chinese,” and ultimately they would evolve into what I call a variation of the ubiquitous “Chop Suey Fonts” used on countless Chinese Restaurant signs and menus to this day. Indeed, check out Pizzadude’s Chinese Takeaway, a contemporary “ethnic” font used now.

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Germany, was barred by the 1918 Versaillles Treaty from trade with China (indeed Britain and France stripped all of Germany’s Chinese Colonies and gave them to Japan—whether or not that was a good thing is for historians to debate).  At any rate, could it be that the Germans, who were not allowed access to the flood of imported Chinese Mah Jong sets in Europe, were then forced to come up with their own inventive designs for this game, sui generis? Without making too much about it, I think this is the case. Certainly one could argue no one came up with more smartly designed tiles and boxes than the Germans did in the twenties and early 30’s—whether or not their sets were made of Mother-Of Pearl, bone or of "stone" by Richter.

The numerals on this charming German wooden set can be seen as a small but further  example of the flowering of German ingenuity regarding Mah Jong.  It’s an almost “transitional” set to the Western Market. The Mah-JonggTM Sales Company, and their desire for continuity and control of the market had little tolerance for delightful quirkiness such as this. The exotic-pseudo yet very endearing “Chinese” font of this German set would have no place in Mr. Babcock’s world. "

The set came with the original paperwork



IMG_1669and the old typed instructions from the 1920s that were added to make scoring and playing easier.

Many thanks to Mim for sharing this Mahjong Treasure with us all.