NEW YORK - When Red Coin Mahjong released the 2013 limited edition set Shanghai Water, the set sold out before the listing was even finished being put online. “I am always amazed when my sets sell out so quickly. Each time, I think okay, everyone who wanted one has one, so this edition will move slowly.”
Scott: You've chosen to do limited edition runs of your highly sought after tiles. Tell us about your decision to produce limited editions.
Dee: When I made the 6th Edition a run of 40 sets, I expected it to take 2 years for me to sell out. I thought I would be taking a break and spend time doing other things. Wrong! This edition turned out to be extremely popular and I probably could have sold twice as many if I had made them.
Dee Gallo on her mission: “to help re-invigorate interest in this great game with the only newly designed sets made in the USA for a long time, to educate players with the fascinating symbols and images well-known to Chinese culture, and to give the collectors something new to fall in love with.”
Scott: Have you ever considered doing larger commercial runs?
Dee: I am not interested in becoming a factory instead of an artist. It’s enough to carve and paint about 3000-4000 tiles a year, plus prepare the wooden pieces, booklet and keep up with the correspondence. This of course is in addition to regular tile work I do for people needing replacement tiles, joker sets or the fairly popular white dragon requests from people who don’t like blank B&B [bone and bamboo] tiles.
There are so many pieces to this puzzle, after the main tiles, case, trays and racks. I design and make a booklet to explain the set design features. I make accessories such as wind indicators, pushers, certificate of authenticity and yakitori tiles. Every little piece is important to the overall package to make sure these limited edition sets are special. It is something my parents taught me: everything matters, no matter how big or small. And it is all a reflection of me, my family and my Chinese-American culture.
Scott: What is the production process you use to create the final product?
Dee: This is a topic I don’t discuss. For one thing, I have 50 years of art education and work experience which cannot be dismissed because it all contributes to the many techniques, tools and art materials I use. This experience allows me to engrave and paint tiles but involves so many aspects of my experience it could not be described without trivializing it. I do consider my sets to be “a playable form of art”, starting with lots of pencil sketches and studies. I combine traditional techniques with modern technology to create my sets. I have developed a painting technique which allows me to blend colors which I find people really enjoy.
Dee Gallo on playing mahjong: “It is a great way to get to know people, how they think, how they handle problems, how they treat others.”
Scott: How did you come up with the idea to create your own designs?
Dee: I have a friend who asked me if I could re-paint a set for her, and it started me on a new exploration of designs, tile materials, mah jong history and developing techniques for working with vintage plastics and bone. I was carving replacement tiles and joker sets for people when some started to ask if I ever made a whole set. I began to have quite a few asking and one guy who offered me a lot of money to make him a custom set. I decided that rather than make one set for a ridiculous amount, I would make a limited edition of 10 sets which could sell for something more reasonable yet still pay me for my time and effort. In my 1st edition, I wanted to combine traditional Chinese design concepts with modern American elements. Each edition after that has evolved into the more colorful and complicated designs you see in the Shanghai Water set.
Scott: What inspirations do you draw from in designing your tiles?
Dee: Each edition has a theme, something which has meaning to me in some way. These are explained in the booklets that accompany each set. The First edition contained 10 sets, the (2nd)Transitional had 20, the (3rd)Zodiac had 30, the (4th)Music had 20 and the (5th)Longevity had 10 again. This completed a cycle for me, symbolizing my own completion of a whole Horological Cycle on my 60th birthday. I was not intending to make any more, but there was a lot of interest for more sets, so I continued designing. The next set was the (6th) Dragon & Phoenix set and the last (7th) Shanghai Water set was an homage to my Mother’s hometown. I refer to the many images used in Chinese symbolism, folklore, historical stories, superstitions and traditions which I grew up with and researched.
Dee Gallo on growing up with mahjong: “My father always knew exactly what tiles everyone else had, and could still enjoy the challenge of playing with his kids and grandchildren.”
Scott: Your tiles have been a tremendous success. I understand they typically sell out almost immediately after they are released. Were you surprised at your success?
I am always amazed when my sets sell out so quickly. Each time, I think okay, everyone who wanted one has one, so this edition will move slowly. But with limited numbers, I guess there will always be new buyers out there in addition to return customers. I am not surprised that people like my sets, since they are much nicer (in my opinion) than the new sets being made today. They also feature new designs, which are welcome after the same designs have been used for the last 50 or more years. I also try to make my sets special, decorative and unique for collector appeal.
Scott: How did you get introduced to mahjong?
I have played Mah Jong my whole life. My parents both played with their friends, each hosting a poker/mah jong night once a month, with three or four tables going at one time. As kids, we watched, learned and eventually played with my parents helping and by about 7-8 years old, we played on our own.
Dee Gallo on the best things about mahjong: “I think the best thing about Mah Jong is that children, teenagers, adults and elderly players can all play at the same table, each playing their own game level yet enjoying the socialization of the game.”
Scott: What kind of mahjong do you play yourself?
Dee: I play the most simple 13 tile Chinese rules, using 8 flowers and no jokers. It’s a fast game, but with all the talking and eating that goes on during the game, mah jong can last all day or all night. I do have a sister-in-law from Taiwan, so when she plays, we use 16 tiles. I personally am not interested in betting and keeping score… that’s what I have brothers for, hahaha.
You can see more of Dee Gallo’s tiles and designs displayed by the Red Coin Mah Jong Museum online at http://www.redcoinmahjong.com/