French Ivory Phoenix One Bams

Singapore's residents have a long history of being enthusiastic about the game of Mahjong. In fact, Singapore even has its own version of the game, played with delightful "capture" Flower tiles. (Capture tiles are used in games where a player can win extra points by having certain Flower capture tiles. These special sets feature images of a cat and mouse, a rich man and a pot of gold, a rooster and a centipede, a fisherman and a fish, to name some examples.) But during the early days of the Sino-Japanese war, in the 1930s, seeing an increasingly aggressive Japan having invaded and taken over a part of China, Singapore was concerned about being "captured" by the Japanese. Other images began to appear on Mahjong tiles.

To set up the place Singapore occupied in history, in the 1930s it was a British colony with a large Chinese population. Beginning in 1906, some of the Chinese opponents of the Qing Dynasty in China took up residence there. According to Wikipedia:

"In 1906, the Tongmenghui, a revolutionary Chinese organisation dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and led by Sun Yat-sen, founded its Nanyang branch in Singapore, which served as the organisation's headquarters in Southeast Asia."

The Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1912, and the Republic of China was established. After World War I, the British, who were in charge of the city, spent a lot of money in Singapore, building a naval base to protect British interests against the increasingly aggressive Japanese. When completed the base boasted the largest dry dock in the world, and the third largest floating dock. But there was one problem: there was no fleet of ships to dock there. The British thought they could get their fleet to Singapore in time to protect the port, but when WW2 actually broke out, the fleet was in Europe. Singapore was thus at the mercy of the Japanese. Singapore was right be be concerned. It was conquered by the Japanese in 1942 and subsequently occupied by them until 1945 when the city reverted to British control.

In addition to the sets we commonly associate with Singapore, it seems Singapore was also involved with anti-Japanese propaganda in the 1930s. As a British outpost, with many Chinese inhabitants, it was sending out messages about wartime aggression too.

The tiles we will look at today came in this case:


Some of the characters translate to mean Singapore and Shanghai. Possibly this Mahjong business had branches in both cities. I had thought only the craftsmen in Hong Kong were involved in the anti-Japan Mahjong Business. It turns out that the craftsmen in Singapore were just as intent on getting the word out about the Japanese threat as those men working in China. (Caveat: I am assuming that this set was made in Singapore and not imported there. Given that there is a rich history of Mahjong in Singapore, it seems a likely premise.)

The suits and honors are not unusual, although that wonderful One Bam (seen above in the first photograph) does rank among the great One Bams.  But it is the Flowers that cause us to sit up and take notice. There are 16 of them, and 12 of them refer directly to the war against Japan. With the exceptions of the 1 on the Bams and the numbers on the Flower tiles, there are no Arabic numbers or Western letters on the tiles. The set was not meant for export, but perhaps it was intended to fill the people with hope that they could defeat the enemy.


Above we see images of war: a soldier with a sword about to use it on an enemy, another about to throw grenades, an airplane and a bomb heading toward a Japanese man. We have seen many similar images before on other sets. (Search for War in the search box on this website.)

Row #1: fight against the enemy

Row # 2 to follow

Row #3: Open a New Territory (maybe take land back that had been taken over by the Japanese, such as Manchuria?)

Row #4: The tiles with the airplane have the well-known phrase from Dr Sun Yat Sen: Aviation Saves the Nation



According to friend Richard Y., these Flowers translate as team work, or working together. We see a merchant, scholar, farmer with sickle and soldier instead of the normally seen farmer, wood-cutter, fisherman and scholar. Perhaps these tiles can be interpreted to mean that by working together, they might be able to resist the enemy.

You will enjoy the bit of subtle advertising found on the One Dots, the tiles where messages are often hidden. Despite all the political propaganda, there was a bit of company/manufacturer propaganda:


Although not in the right order, they translate to mean:

"The color won't fade" !!

A big thanks to Richard and his friends for helping with the translations.






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B-Couples B&B114 (1)

These wonderful scenes are from a delightful bone and bamboo Mahjong set you can find in Mah Jongg The Art of the Game By Ann Israel and me.

The images detail wedding preparations and the wedding night itself.

On the third row, far right, you can see the bride with her red shoes, sitting on a bed. The bed looks quite ornate, and Chinese Wedding beds actually look like this. I lucked upon this one, seen at Leonard's Antiques.



Many if us who live in NYC might think this is the size of a studio apartment!

Here are some of the carvings seen on the outside of the bed, going around the perimeter of the opening. You will see that the carvings closely resemble some of the ornate ones we see on the outside of deeply carved mahjong boxes.




Here are scenes from Chinese tales, featuring some battles and other dramatic moments, not quite what most of us would expect to have decorating a marital bed! But these scenes are cherished by the Chinese, as we see in other forms of Chinese art.


Chinese lions are atop the bed, on either side:



Inside the bed painted panels surround the mattress, here seen with symbols of prosperity (fish) and modernity (streetlight):



Melons and Pagodas



The mandarin duck symbolizes married bliss



And yet another fish a carp, the symbol for success and advancement in business:



This carving is on the top center of the bed:



Ray Heaton has kindly translated these unusual characters.

I think the characters may be 百世其昌 (reading right to left), which means "may your future generations prosper" and is used in ancestral worship (for example), where chants (or prayers) to ancestors are made asking them to help protect you, family and generations yet to come.



This all ties in very nicely, doesn't it?


These Mahjong tiles represent propaganda images made by Chinese craftsmen. The 2nd Sino-Japanese War, which lasted from July 7, 1937 to September 9th, 1945, was very difficult for the Chinese. The problems began when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, and many localized battles followed that invasion. But by 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge incident  started an all-out war between the two countries, and it became the largest Asian War in the 20th Century.

Although we can't know what was going on in the minds of the Mahjong craftsmen, it seems that China wanted soldiers to defend China from the invaders.  And interestingly, as we saw earlier in the Mysterious Case of E. A. R. Fowles, Mahjong tiles sometimes provided the medium for the message. Craftsmen wanted to let the world know how the Chinese felt about the war and that they were going to fight back against the invaders, with perhaps a hope that others would help them too.

Once again, Ray Heaton has translated these tiles for us:

"The tiles say 奮勇殺敵, fenyong shadi, "to summon up courage to fight the enemy" or simply "to fight the enemy bravely".

And 航空救國, hangkong jiuguo, aviation saves the nation."

The top tiles show two Chinese soldiers on the right,  with their Chinese style caps, and two Japanese ones on the left (Rising Sun on their hats)

"Aviation saves the nation" is a saying coined by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Republic of China, right after World War I, in the hopes of developing the aviation industry. He also wanted to train pilots who could serve their country and defeat the Chinese warlords wreaking havoc. The saying continued to be used to rally people to fight to save the nation, and it certainly seems to have been used in that way with these tiles. The Chinese star-like emblem can be seen on the plane's wings.

It is possible the Chinese carvers were inspired by some of these posters, taken from this website:



Hand-To-Hand Fighting

Notice that swords were being used in battle.

The United States government and its citizens helped China during its war with Japan. Many citizen groups raised money for the Chinese people.

I found a very interesting website if any of you are interested in learning more about these war years: One of the articles features propaganda posters that appeared at this time.

One of the articles features some recent aviation paintings by a very talented artist Roy Grinnell.

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