My Conversation with a Singapore Mahjong Expert

Because of mahjong anime, I gained an interest in Japanese mahjong. And because I played so much Japanese mahjong and continued to consume anime and manga based on it, I began to wonder what it would be like if there was a series based on having to play all of the different styles of mahjong which exist around the world. This has led me to do some research and even attempts to play other styles of mahjong, and in fact the first post I made on this blog about other styles of mahjong was about Singapore-style. At the time, the only way I could play it was a single player java program, so no matter what my speculations about strategy and gameplay were the result of a very limited experience.

Since then, I’ve been able to find a website which allows me to play some form of Singapore mahjong against human opponents, and through it I’ve been able to put to the test some of my musings on Singapore mahjong from that post. Looking back, the post turns out to have been decently accurate, but I am of course still very much a beginner at it, so I wanted to find someone with more perspective and experience. That’s how I came across Singapore Sparrows, site dedicated to mahjong in Singapore (primarily the MCR—more on that another time—and Singapore styles), and through it managed to have an interesting and enlightening conversation concerning the similarities and differences between Japanese and Singapore mahjong.

I recommend reading the entire post as well as my follow-up comment, but to summarize I asked the blog owner Edwin a series of questions about strategy in Singapore mahjong, especially because the Singapore style has far fewer hands than Japanese and therefore the hands felt comparatively less fluid. Edwin brought up the fact that not only does Singapore mahjong have things called bonus tiles which can net you points just for drawing them, but it has more bonus tiles than probably any other style of mahjong, and so in his opinion the bonus tiles function in a capacity similar to cheap hands in Japanese-style such as tanyao and iipeikou.

Thinking about the function of bonus tiles, I speculated that rather than fulfilling the role of those smaller value hands, they were more akin to calling riichi: ways to empower worthless hands and give them some teeth and a chance to win. The big difference is that with bonus tiles they are the catalyst to deviate your hand into something simpler, whereas calling riichi always exists as an optional goal, beginning vs. end, but both carry risks unique to each version of the game.

Now, when considering how this would impact a narrative about a game of Singapore mahjong, the flower tiles really are wild cards, and I could see some maverick of a hero taking a risk to get just the right bonus tiles he or she needs, a foolish move normally, but one that the hero recognizes is the only path to victory. Along with all of that animal tile imagery of cats eating mice and chickens eating bugs, panels could be filled with really elaborate nature imagery.

Another fascinating point brought by Edwin was the way in which pinfu (or ping hu) hands in Singapore mahjong really influence the way the game is played. If you play riichi mahjong you may think pinfu hands are important because of how quick and probable they are, but their potency is nothing compared to Singapore pinfu. Not only can it be played open, but it has a special stipulation which makes it either a weak, simple 1 han (tai in Singapore-style lingo) or a monstrous and deadly 4 han hand, controlled by the presence or absence of bonus tiles (no bonus tiles means 4 han). As such, many players will aim for “ping hu,” but because it’s so clearly a good option no matter what, players of Singapore mahjong are also especially wary of its dualistic lamb/lion status. If you have no bonus tiles and a couple of open straights in your hand, people will get mighty suspicious and the player to your left will try to figure out ways to avoid dealing out tiles you need for your straights. It’s a dimension of strategy that is in many ways different from Japanese-style mahjong, and it’s the sort of thing that encourages me to try more styles.

And of course, the variable strength of Singapore pinfu is also a perfect place for some dramatic storytelling. Can’t you imagine a Washizu-esque villain playing his masterful 4 tai ping hu, ready to destroy his opponent, when suddenly he draws a flower bonus tile and all of his beautiful machinations slip through his fingers like sand? Can’t you imagine his agony as the hero willingly deals into the significantly downgraded hand, giving poor Singaporean Washizu a rather pyrrhic victory?

Fun times. Fun, fun times. Incidentally, thanks to mahjong comrade Dave I learned that Mahjong Hime allows you to play both Singapore and Taiwanese styles. Most likely, my next post regarding the hypothetical International Mahjong Manga will be about Taiwanese mahjong.