Monthly Archives: March 2016

I have given around 100 talks about mahjong art in the last year and a half, and I always mention the craftsmen who designed,  carved and painted those tiles we all love. The other day I was asked about some of my favorite sets, and my thoughts immediately went to a wonderful one designed by Dee Gallo, a craftswoman! So here is a celebration of Dee and the beautiful sets she has designed. I am lucky enough to own one, featured today, but please visit her website to see some of the others.

Some of you know that when mahjong was ruled illegal in China, during the Cultural Revolution, all mahjong sets were ordered destroyed, as were all company records. Craftsmen were no longer allowed to practice the techniques that had been handed down for generations. Methods of carving, restoring, and painting Mahjong tiles were lost forever. Thank goodness Dee Gallo was determined to figure out how to bring tiles back to life, and I know many of us are indebted to her for her help restoring or replacing our lost tiles. But while learning how to go about restoring old tiles and carving replacement tiles, Dee was able to start thinking about creating new designs for sets. And this is her latest limited edition enrobed (!) set:


Dee Gallo's Limited Edition Money Set. Be sure to note the often unique Bam placement and Bamboo stalk design.


Dee's deep rooted knowledge of Chinese culture and history is evident in every new series she creates. Here you can see The Money Set, released in 2014. This is Dee's 8th set, dedicated to her parents. It pays homage to her grandfather and his two brothers who worked at the Bank of Shanghai. All three were sent to different parts of China to open bank branches, and they met their wives while working for the bank. Eventually they all decided to move to the United States and open their own banking business and fur import business. The banking world in China inspired Dee's latest set. (More about that later.)  I know we all could not be more delighted that Dee is free to work on her creative designs on our shores.

I am going to use Dee's own words (in green) to describe what the images represent. But please visit Dee's site to really get to see the beauty of the tiles. My photos were taken with my cell phone, and don't begin to show the wonderful work she has done.

We'll start with the suits.


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This is the 22nd set she made in this edition.



"Each of the Dots in this set is a coin, with the #1 Dot sporting a signature and an edition number. The Chinese character for Lee, which is my family name, is rotated four times around the square hole, representing the four Cardinal points (E,S,W,N). Inside the square is the number representing its place in the series. Chinese cash is a symbol of prosperity, both as an amulet and an ornament. In 11th Century China, the name "round coin" was applied to copper coins (hence "Red Coin") (Ed, the name of Dee's business) described as "square within and round without." This represents the internal integrity of the government issuing the coin, and their external attitude of cooperation (no sharp corners to annoy anyone.) I hope to promote these qualities. Because this set celebrates the Chinese cash (coin) I have used copper as a color for the first time on many of the designs. (Ed: my husband Woody, an art director and font aficionado, noted that the typeface that Dee uses is Copper Plate, a lovely tie-in.)


Dee uses banking numbers instead of the normally seen Chinese numbers.


The Wan or Crak Suit

This is a unique suit designed with the special characters (ED: look at the Chinese numbers, very different from what we are used to seeing on our tiles) used in China and Taiwan for writing checks. The usual characters are too easy to alter so these characters were developed to make checks more secure. You can see the "normal" characters hidden in most of these special characters. These unusual characters are perfect for this Money Set, don't you think?

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The Bamboo suit

The #1 Bamboo is my Rooster, perched on a pile of copper coins and crowing his joy at a prosperous day beginning. The Rooster has special meaning for me, as my father and sister were born in the Year of the Rooster and my husband's surname, Gallo, means rooster in Italian. So it is in their honor that I drew the Rooster as the #1 Bam, a distinctive tile in all Mah Jong sets. In addition, most of the rural villages in China had living bamboo fences surrounding the compound of houses, and plenty of chickens and roosters...these served as a security and early warning system against pirates and thieves.


(Ed: Be sure to look at the arrangement of the other Bams on this photo: some unique approaches to the designs!)




The Dragons

Coins decorate the Dragon suit as well. The Red (Jung) (Ed: sometimes written Chung) means "center" as in Jung Guo (China: central country). The Green (Fa) is half of the phrase "Fa Tsai,"  meaning (I hope you) become rich. The Blue character (Bai) means "white" or blank.

Ed: Don't you love the coin in each of the Dragons?

The Winds

Money bags represent the winds, with the neck of the bag facing in the direction of the tile. Each money bag is sitting on a pile of copper coins, representing abundant wealth and prosperity.

Ed: The money bags almost have personalities, don't they? They remind me of the first short made by Pixar: Luxo Jr. (If you are not familiar with this short, you will have to go to youtube to see that delightful film: search for Luxo Jr. I was not allowed to post the link here.)

The Flowers


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One set of Flowers sports a large coin and as flower representing the season. The large coins are indicative of the traditional shapes used for coins in early dynasties. The characters tell you the name of the plant, 1 Plum, 2 Orchid, 3 Mom (Ed: chrysanthemum) 4 Bamboo. th other set of Flowers depicts children playing with coins in each season (1 Spring, 2 Summer, 3 Autumn, 4 Winter), representing a wish for prosperity and luck.

Ed: In the top row I believe Dee is paying homage to 100 children, a theme often seen in Chinese art, where children are seen being children in paintings. Children are also seen on mahjong tiles and boxes



Direction Coins

(Ed: Dee made these specifically for this set. As many of you know, we often find mings with direction coins in our old boxes, or sometimes a bakelite wheel indicating directions on it. Dee designed her own, also seen on the top row of the Flower tiles.)





(Ed: sadly I only have eight Jokers, but I will tell you about all of them, and you just will have to go to Dee's website to see them all)

Each joker shows a design which will bring you luck and prosperity!

2 Facing Bats and coin: Blessings before your eyes

3 Coins tied together: the Trinity of luck-Heaven, Earth and Mankind

Double Fish & Stone Chime: May you have a superabundance of auspicious happiness

Ruyi: Wish-granting Wand, Ruyi means "As you wish"

Ingot: Yuanbao is a large ingot of gold representing the phrase "all will be as you wish" in addition to prosperity

3 legged Toad: Belongs to Liu Hai, God of Wealth & always finds gold

Shou Medallion: the longevity symbol, when used in a circular shape mens fulfillment or completion. Mah Jong!

Lozenge and Endless Knot: may you have everlasting victory for 10 Thousand generations

I am missing ( 🙁  )

Yin-Yang: Remember there is a balance in life, you win some, you lose some! This symbol is actually called Tai-ji, meaning The Original One, from which the duality of Yin (dark)/Yang (light) developed.

5 Ears of Grain on One Stalk: may you enjoy a bumper harvest and reap a big reward!

Now, wasn't this a wonderful treat? Here's to Dee!!

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Dee at work on the Money Set, hand-painting each tile.


The Dragon Set, designed by Dee Gallo and Crisloid.

You have a chance to buy one of Dee's other sets, designed by Dee and the people at Crisloid. (Click here.)The Dragon Set takes many of Crisloid's unique designs and combines them with Dee's images.










On this Shanghai Luck set, the Dots are crabs.

Today we are very lucky to have guest contributor Dr. Arjan Gittenberger. Arjan is a Marine Biologist, based in the Netherlands, and he is a mahjong enthusiast. Given his interest in marine life, he was perusing some of the posts on this website featuring Flower tiles with sea creatures. He wrote me this fascinating email, which he kindly agreed to have turned into a post. I think you will be amazed both by the descriptions of the marine life and the skill of the carvers.

Hi Gregg,

We run a company focusing specifically on questions where species identification in the marine environment is of the uttermost importance (mostly marine invasive species related projects). Although I have never been diving or working in Chinese seas I’ve worked for quite some years in the NW Pacific in the waters surrounding Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, etc…

Evidentially I find  the Mah-jong tiles showing sea-creatures very interesting and I’m actually amazed about the details that are visible on the drawings. Looking at your posts about sea creatures on tiles I noticed some details that you may find interesting (and may already know), but which you don’t mention in these posts:

* First the “Shanghai Luck set”:… I assume that it doesn’t simply show sea-creatures. It in fact illustrates the Shanghai cuisine, the youngest among the ten major cuisines in China with a history of more than 400 years, becoming especially popular when Shanghai became a major domestic and international trading port in the later part of the 19th century. The most famous dishes of the Shanghai cuisine concern the Chinese mitten crab (hairy crab) and a dish with “shrimp with colorful vegetables”. See

* Looking at the crabs illustrated on the tiles  of the “Shanghai Luck set” and in other sets illustrated in your posts on crabs on tiles, you can in fact notice several morphological characters that are diagnostic for the Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis):

First, on many of the tiles I found illustrated on the internet the brown/reddish fur-like hairs on the claws, and the white “claw tips”, are clearly visible. There are only a few species of crabs worldwide that have such claws with hairs and white claw tips. A second morphological character that is used for identifying crabs  concerns the pattern on its back. These patterns are very crab species specific. As can for example be seen on this Wikipedia picture of the Chinese mitten crab

from wikipedia
from wikipedia

( ) , this crab species has “H” pattern on its back (not present in other crab species), which in fact looks like a square if you look at it from a bit more of a distance from a different angle. In the drawings of crabs on mah-jong tiles you had already noticed that this “H”-like pattern is often engraved on the back of these crabs. A final detail that is only visible on the One Dot crab illustrated on your website (“Shanghai Luck set”), is the number of “spines” in between the eyes of the crab. This number is again very species specific. There are crab species with “in between the eyes” no spines, three spines, five spines, etc…. The Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis) has four spines between the eyes, which is also the exact number of spines between the eyes visible on the One Dot.  The carver of this tile in fact appears to be aware of all of the above mentioned diagnostic characters, i.e. the illustrated crab has white claw tips, followed by a zone of brownish hairs on the claws, four spines between the eyes, and a H-like pattern on its back.


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Concerning the habitat of the Chinese mitten crab… On your post about a tile with a fish and a crab on it (The Fish in Chinese Art and Mahjong Part 2), you indicate that the fish is probably “a sturgeon, a type of fish treasured by the Chinese, which is unusual in that it lives in both fresh and salt water, although on this tile you can see the artist clearly intended this to be salt water, given the presence of the crab.”….
I agree with you that the fish is probably a sturgeon. The crab does not indicate that the artist intended this to be salt water however… The red claws of the crab probably indicate that this crab again concerns the Chinese mitten crab. Just like the sturgeon, the Chinese mitten crab is unusual, as one of the only crab species worldwide that does this,  in that it lives in both fresh and salt water. Most of it life Chinese mitten crabs live in fresh water many miles land inwards, but for their reproduction (when the crab is ~2-3 years old) they travel back to the sea. This often happens once per year during which up to thousands of 10-20 cm large hairy crabs may start their trip together at the same time over many miles towards back the sea to reproduce (after which most die and the young swim stream upwards into the fresh water again). To reach the sea they sometimes come out of the rivers/streams and even continue their way over land ( sometimes causing traffic jams, panic, etc. ). In conclusion it is probably not a coincidence that this crab is illustrated together with a sturgeon on the same tile, as they both have the unusual freshwater/marine lifecycle.


In your first post about sea creatures (December 24) you also illustrate a beautiful tile with “a crab on it next to rocks and grasses growing at the bottom of the sea”. The hairy claws and the H on its back in fact illustrate that this again should be considered a Chinese mitten crab. This crab is clearly shown in its fresh water habitat as the grasses on the tile probably concern a freshwater cane species, possibly “ Miscanthus sinensis

( see ).

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Finally concerning the tile with a fish and to the left of it a strange creature.  You indicate that this may be some kind of jelly fish. I agree. As you probably noticed the strange thing about this picture is that, if it is a jellyfish, it is drawn upside down… To my believe it is in fact the “upside down jellyfish”,  Cassiopea andromeda. This is a well-known common species in China/the NW Pacific as it occurs in mashes and mangroves where also most of the crab and shrimp fisheries took/take place. This unique species lies upside down on the bottom with its tentacles sticking up, mimicking sea-grass.  When mangrove fishes get scared away by a predator, they tend to flee into the sea-grass to hide… When they make the mistake of fleeing into the tentacles of this upside-down jellyfish they get stung, die and get eaten. Possibly this behaviour is what is being illustrated on the mah-jong tile. 
Although I haven’t found any specific references about Cassiopea andromeda, this species belongs to the jellyfish Order Rhizostomae from which many species are prepared in various dishes (e.g. within the Shanghai cuisine). As this jellyfish lies in shallow water on the bottom in mangroves, I can imagine that it is relatively easy to collect, and crab/shrimp fishermen would take them along



A picture I took myself in Indonesia of the upside down jellyfish illustrating how the tentacles mimic sea-grass. The young/smaller individuals of this species, look more like the picture on the Mahjong tile, including the stripes/dots pattern.


Here's Gregg again: Isn't it remarkable how much can be learned about the world by looking at mahjong tiles? Not only does playing the game keep us mentally sharp and flexible, and provide opportunities to develop friendships, but it can help us gain more knowledge about different cultures, art and design, and now marine life! Thank you, Arjan for this extra bit of appreciation for our beloved Mahjong tiles.

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I thought you all would enjoy seeing this wonderful set made in Vermont, a state with a long history of design and craftsmanship. This set, made in Brandon by the Newtown & Thompson Company, has wonderful and unique designs for many of the tile faces, as you will see. My friend Gail once told me that one of the many things she loves about the game is that no one was priced out of it. In fact, many of the most delightful designs can be found on some of the most affordable sets, and this is one of them. And aren't these some of the most darling dragons you have ever seen?


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You will notice on this box there is no mention of anything vaguely "Mahjong" related, not wanting to risk any copy-right issues. It is just a game of Tiles. The box has delightful stylized Dragons, one on each side, with their ever-present pearl hidden in the smoke, right above the T and the S.


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Take a look at the tile designs. The Craks have a very Asian flair to them, the Dots have some unusual arrangements, although we have seen these before. But the Bams! I have never seen 4 Bams stacked up like that, or the 7 Bam with the top one off-side, or the 8 Bam with two rows of four. It takes a lot of creativity to make arrangements of tile designs unique and these designers did it! But there are no visual cues as to which suits the Dragon belong to: the Craks are black but the Dragon is Red, The Dots are red but their Dragon is painted black, only the Bams got a Dragon that is the same color as the tiles. And the designers made it be two-tone by painting the backs of the tiles!

And did you notice the Flowers? The 1 Flowers almost seem upside down if you keep the number 1 on the top (which is why I put the #1 on the bottom, so that the flower would be right-side up). Kind of funny, right?