Green Tile Social Club mahjong tournament is NYC’s hottest spot

When players enter Hana House in downtown Brooklyn, New York, they hear mahjong before they see it: a staccato cascade of plastic clicking together. It has been the soundtrack of many Asian homes for over two centuries, ever since the invention of the four-way tile game in China. But today’s scene is far from an aunt’s living room.

Enter Green Tile Social Club, New York City’s hottest mahjong social club, which celebrated its second anniversary at Hana House this weekend. A DJ spins electronic dance tracks and more than 100 players dance to the music. Tea is swapped for cocktails made with soju, matcha syrup and lychee. The most surprising thing is that a large part of the crowd is under 30 years old. And Green Tile has doubled the number of participants since October, from 4,000 to 8,000.

The self-proclaimed “untz untz mahjong extravaganza” is aimed at young people looking for a different type of social gathering outside of or in addition to traditional nightlife. It’s part of a broader upheaval in New York City nightlife, with members-only clubs becoming more and more popular while Generation Z drinks less and less — a product of shifting priorities and social habits of the pandemic.

“We see people drawn to events where they already know what’s going on — ‘if you know, you know’ events,” said Bowen Goh, co-owner of Mood Ring, a bar in Bushwick.

For Green Tile’s second anniversary, the social club deployed dozens of mahjong tables across two floors of Hana House, a Korean restaurant and venue in downtown Brooklyn. Jordan Winters

Mahjong is more than just a replacement for trivia night at the bar. Players must make combinations of matching tiles or successive tiles to win. It is often compared to poker or rummy. The Green Tile tournament – ​​where players not only have to win each round, but are graded based on the difficulty of the winning hand and how well they won – can get heated.

But it was never about winning. Green Tile is among other party collectives, Asian-themed bars and pop-ups that all center social life around the Asian-American community and give the culture a modern twist.

When Goh opened Mood Ring in 2017, “there were no Asian American-owned venues or focused parties. I wouldn’t say we spearheaded it, but we were among the first to promote it,” he said. “There’s just more demand now among venues, creators and artists.” The bar is now a staple of the city’s Asian nightlife.

In many ways, the Green Tile afterparty is a who’s who of the cool Asian kid scene: People showing off Asian streetwear brands, vintage qipaos, and culturally inspired tattoos.

Akiko Barreras shows off her winning mahjong hand to other players under the purple lights of Hana House.Jordan Winters

“During the pandemic, we spent two full years reflecting on ourselves and rediscovering our identity. I think a lot of people came out of this period with a new perspective on (heritage),” said Ernest Chan, co-founder of Green Tile. “And I think there was also a lot of Asian hatred that accompanied that moment, and I think that led to a lot of inner work…and seeking support from the community.” And I think that driving factor is why there is so much more representation today.

What started with four friends wanting to find other players their age grew into monthly Sunday get-togethers, after-parties and paid supper clubs over the two years since the club was founded.

Beginners and serious tournament players all have a place at the table. A friend brought Akiko Barreras to her first Green Tile event a year ago, and she’s been hooked ever since.

“I met a lot of friends at this club, enough to invite them to my birthday party,” she said.

Actors primarily focus on the unique challenge of transmitting cultural practices within Asian households.

“I always saw my parents playing this game with other people, but I never participated because they all speak Chinese. I don’t speak Chinese at all, so that’s always been a barrier,” said rookie player Thomas Shen. However, in his first match at Green Tile, Shen managed to beat more experienced players.

“Now I kind of understand why (my parents) were shouting all that,” the 22-year-old said with a big winning smile on his face.

It’s easy to get intimidated, like Shen, by the Chinese characters and rules of the game. But even experienced players don’t know everything about the game because it has evolved so much over hundreds of years.

“There are different versions that people play in our club. We have people of Asian descent of all different types,” said co-founder Sarah Teng. “Some people come in and say, ‘Oh, I know Japanese riichi,’ and they teach the table they’re sitting at how to play.”

Each game of mahjong begins with players shuffling tiles. This sound, like that of rain falling on a tin roof, is a distinct feature of Asian homes around the world. Jordan Winters

They opted for a Cantonese style as the most accessible among all the different editions. The integration of the wider Asian community, beyond just Chinese players, has led to dazzling success on social media. They even brought in Bowen Yang from “Saturday Night Live.” But the founders say they’ll know they’ve succeeded when Michelle Yeoh sits down at one of their tables.

“I really want us to get to a point where we’re seen as just like any other regular game, like, you know, how chess is so ingrained in American culture that you see chess tables literally in every park in New York. I want us to make it happen with mahjong,” said co-founder Grace Liu.

But until they have their “Queen’s Gambit” moment, they need to focus on the social game. This summer they are hosting a speed dating event (they are very proud of some dating success stories) and a mahjong series in the garden.

“We really feel like there’s a renaissance of mahjong and we’re really happy to be able to be a part of it,” Teng said.

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