Continuous Flowers

Most of us know that orchids are one of the plants associated with seasons in China. The orchid is often associated with spring. *

Every year the New York Botanical Garden does a fabulous display of orchids.

Here are a few some lovely photos taken from their website:







Get to the show if you can.

Here follow a few orchids from Mahjong tiles;

top left:

four split Mahjong flower pots with butterfly
four split Mahjong flower pots with butterfly



Always with a very delicate look to them, even though this tile was done by a German company, Ashton & Rietz.


And orchids painted by a Chinese artist:



You'll note that the delicacy of theMahjong tiles are not that dissimilar to this lovely ink drawing by Zheng Xie (Chinese, 1693–1765) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum


*I am able to remember this fact when I think of "springing" to buy an orchid,  that meaning of spring being the North American informal use of the word, indicating to pay for as a treat.


For those of you who don't yet know, there is a wonderful magazine, The Mahjong Collector. I am eagerly awaiting my copy.

You can find out more by emailing them at this address:


To see when I am doing author appearances, click here

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To learn more about Mah Jongg, you might want to take a look at this book that I wrote with Ann Israel, published by Tuttle.


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.

1 Comment



These Flowers are from the hand carved Chinese Bakelite Mahjong set we saw yesterday. The top Flowers show a female musician and three other ladies, perhaps dancers with long sleeves. The Chinese symbols are those of the seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.  A wall background is carved behind these ladies, as we often see on these type of Flowers, though the author misplaced those four tiles which should read 4321 to have the wall work! The lower set are the Singapore capture tiles, the Rich Man and the Pot of Gold, and the Cat and the Mouse.

The color silver, seen above, is rare on Mahjong tiles.

Many scholars, including C.A.S. Williams and Wolfram Eberhard, acknowledge that owls were not looked upon favorably in China in the 1900s, and rather were harbingers of ill fortune and death, unlike the phoenix which is associated with good fortune. Clearly, though, the Western market did not have those thoughts about owls.

And for a bit more about the owl in early Chinese history, Ray Heaton provided us with a link to a Sotheby's article.


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Here is an excerpt I thought was interesting:

"The myth of the origin of the Shang people is found in The Book of Songs (“Heaven bade the dark bird”) . Of course, this song cannot be regarded as an original record of the Shang dynasty.  It is more likely that it was transmitted orally through the Shang into the Zhou period, with slight variations over time. In Shang and Zhou lexicography, the word xuan (black) can also be understood as “mysterious” or “divine”8,  and in Shang oracle bone inscriptions, we find a pictograph depicting a beaked owl with round eyes and plump torso, which is the name of a star, or it can be rendered as the character standing for the owl itself (Heji: 522, 11497, 11498, 11499, 11500).  In other cases, it is used together with the ancestral names Fu Gui and Fu, and  can be interpreted as “Father Gui of the Owl clan” (fig. 11) and “Lady of the Black Owl clan” (fig. 12). Thus, the evidence from Shang archaeology and historical literature render it quite possible that the Shang people believed in some mythical relationship with the owl. Liu Dunyuan has argued that the Shang people perceived the owl as the god of night and dreams, as well as the messenger between the human and the spirit world – on account of its silent flight and hunting in darkness9.  If so, this would explain why the owl is employed repeatedly in Shang ritual art and is found in a burial context, as we have seen in the examples previously discussed.

The conventional explanation is that the black bird is a swallow (yanzi). This was the view of scholars of the Han dynasty, and Han paintings and murals did indeed present the swallow as the black bird (or sun-bird, taiyangniao) and the owl as the bird of the underworld. For example, the silk funerary banner from the Mawangdui Han tomb (no. 1) depicts a black bird (swallow-like) in the sun, and an owl-like bird near the entrance of the heaven, and moreover, on left and right sides of the earth platform are two owl-on-turtle images.  Their meaning, according to Eugene Wang, is to signify “the sun setting at dusk in the west and re-emerging from the east at dawn.”10  Han ideology favored the association of the swallow with filial piety (xiao) – after all, the swallow faithfully returns every year – and the owl was conversely portrayed as an evil bird that ate its mother11.  We however do not find such opposition in the earlier period, and in Shang archaeology, while there are a few references to the swallow, the owl is clearly more prominent."



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We are all familiar with these hand carved Mahjong leisure sets. The Flowers represent what the Chinese craftsmen thought people did in their free time.

In this set it makes a difference in terms of how the tiles are arranged. They had to be laid out 4321, or else one misses the linked scenes.

These tiles show adults in the top row. The left features two ladies playing tennis, at the net; note the short socks and sneakers. And the ladies at the pool have on those long-legged swimsuits that appeared in the 1930s. Don't you love the woman caught mid-dive?

To see more of swimsuit fashion at that time, click below's%20Athletic%20Tank%20Suits

The lower row shows children at play. The ballerina, the boys playing with a sword and running with a balloon, and the little girl has a dog nipping at her dress.

Ray Heaton has translated the tiles, and feels they may be Japanese in origin.

"The bottom row has the characters 逍遙快楽.  The last of these (tile #4) is a Japanese equivalent to the Chinese character 樂, hence my linking the Japanese origin.
The tiles say Xiaoyao Kuaile, "Free and Unfettered, happy and joyful", I'd translate this to "unrestrained joy", (or a bit more strained to "free, unfettered and full of joy").
The top row are 美麗健康, Mei Li Jian Kang:  Mei Li translates to "Beautiful" and Jian Kang translates as "Healthy", so we'd maybe say "Health and Beauty"."


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This Chinese bakelite set is backed with a black wafer. The One Bams are the peacock with two feet planted, and the other Bams are rounded. The One Dot has meanders inside, and the other Dots are floral. And the Craks have the elaborate Wan. The Dragons have the symbols for Prosperity (Green) and Center symbolizing China (Red).

landscape with river
landscape with river

Here the Mahjong bone and bamboo Flower tiles are properly oriented in 1234 positions. A river is shown flowing through beautiful mountainous terrain. The Chinese character for mountain is seen on tile 2. Often Flower tiles show beautiful places in China. I love the details seen on the structure, including the stonework, the keystone on top of the arch and the roof supports. Remember these tiles are only an inch tall, so this is truly detailed carving.

Ray Heaton translated the tiles seen above, and they mean one of two things:

"Either "Green Hills Live Forever" or "Blue Mountains Live Forever".  The words for Green and Blue are the same, as is Hill and Mountain.  I think the full translation would be "May you live forever just as the Green Hills"... it seems Green Hills are associated more to a wish for a long life than Blue Mountains, but I suspect they're pretty much interchangeable!"

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This is one of my favorite mass-produced Chinese Bakelite Mahjong sets. I like to call it the Talking Hawk One Bam because of the comic-book like talk bubble coming from the hawk's mouth, translated as a wish for good fortune and longevity. The One Dots resemble flowers within flowers, and the other dots are a much more simplified flower. The Craks are elaborate Wans, and the Bams are rounded. The Red and Green Dragons are the Chinese character Chung (center) and Fa (prosperity). The White Dragon resembles a frame decorated with meanders (abstract patterns).

Notice how the upper level of Flower tiles reads correctly with tiles 4321. The boat would not be recognizable without this orientation, and the wall only works this way too. For the lower tiles, the order does not make a difference. The lower tiles have the four important flowers: plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum, shown as if they are growing outside the windows. The bottom row of Flowers probably represents some of the ladies in the Twelve Beauties of Jinling (also known as Dream of the Red Mansion  or Dream of the Red Chamber), a tale familiar to most Chinese.