Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tuesday Prompt: Tessa Too-Kong: Stonewalled

Stonewalled

I’m stymied! Stonewalled! … to delay or obstruct, says the Oxford English Dictionary (just to make sure), but no suggestions of origin, which is why I wondered if the word derived from the game of Mah Jong… We used to play Mah Jong at home on our parents’ poker table, my sister, my mother and myself, always having to induce my cousin or some hapless friend into being the fourth. It was the ideal game for long, lazy Saturday afternoons, or rainy days, or sultry weekday nights. In a land where television did not yet hold sway, card games were a common form of entertainment and socializing. 
            My mother had her Monday afternoon Rummoli game with the Portuguese ladies in the Ladies Pavilion of the Georgetown Cricket Club, her Tuesday evening Poker “Small—referring to the size of the table stakes—School” where she played with my father, and her Wednesday morning Bridge with the British Embassy ladies, where once my little sister crawled under the table and announced that she hadn’t shaved her legs. My father disappeared on several evenings to the Chinese Chung Wah Club on Camp Street to play Fan Tan or Pai Qo, and my grandparents played Canasta with Grandpa’s longstanding crony every Friday night like clockwork. My grandmother used to raise her eyebrows at us – meaning “Disappear!” – if we got too close. As children, we played Bishka, Whist and Go In The Pack.
            Mah Jong is said to date back to 500 BC and is believed to have been played by Confucius. It’s a game of strategy, about building stone walls, and is as much about defence, blocking other players from making their hands, as about making complicated hands. Dice are thrown to move and select the tiles, small rectangular ivory blocks embossed with delicate Chinese brushwork representing balls, bamboos and characters. There are four players and four rounds, each player representing one of the Four Winds. Each round belongs to a Wind, and each player takes a turn at being the East Wind, or banker, winning or paying double. The tiles are built into a two-tier stone wall eighteen tiles long and locked tightly into a square to “keep the barbarians out.” The dice are rolled to determine which Wind’s wall is to be broken, and where, and the game progresses with tiles being drawn from the wall until it disintegrates. Each player builds up their “armies” with banners for the North, South, East and West Winds as high tiles, along with the rampant White, Red and Green Dragons, and bonus money for high “Flower” tiles. Shuffling and building the stone walls with the tiles was the most tedious part of the play, but a seasoned player could whisk the tiles into place in a few seconds.
            We four players are now scattered to the Four Winds. My cousin lives in Edmonton, my sister near Cadiz, my mother in Georgetown and I, in Santiago, Chile. I am the South Wind.
I taught my son and daughter to play Mah Jong, but we are but three. Stonewalled again.
Tessa Too-Kong
2013-05-09

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