Gregg Swain (left) and Ann M. Israel.

Ann M. Israel and Gregg Swain were after private Western mah majongg collections when they invaded many homes during their search, but they aren’t burglars! They are photo-archeologists, and private homes were their dig!

Hidden deep in the dark of basements, closets, and attics all over this world are some of the most amazing mah jongg treasures people might never see; tiles carefully hand carved and painted by artisans long forgotten. Like skillful and patient archeologists, Ann M. Israel and Gregg Swain set out to unearth these lost works of art before they are forgotten forever.

We invaded people’s homes with cameras, lighting, and staging. We're so grateful for their generosity to let us in. - Gregg

Taking with them their photographer accomplice Michel Arnaud, covering territories from Europe to North America, they dug up an incredible display of Western mah jongg artifacts that until this day have rarely been seen, which they assembled in their new book due for release on the 17th of November entitled “Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game”, Tuttle Publishing 2014. The ladies discuss their adventures with Mahjong News.

MN: How were you first introduced to mah jongg?

Ann: A friend and I went down to the Jewish Heritage Museum to see the exhibit, Project Mah Jongg. That was the first time I had ever seen the game played (there was a game going on in the middle of the exhibit) or, for that matter, ever seen a Mah Jongg set. Shortly thereafter, a group of us started our Mah Jongg lessons. It is this very same group that is still together and we play Mah Jongg every Wednesday.

Gregg: I grew up in NYC where many people played the game. My grandmother played, as did her friends. I can also remember walking down the city streets in the summer and seeing people outside of their buildings playing the game on card tables set up on the sidewalk.

MN: What keeps you moving forward playing mah jongg and participating in the greater mah jongg community?

Ann: The social aspect of the game is one of the great motivators for me. The group I play with weekly, which includes Gregg, has become a very important circle of friends. They have been with me in the darkest of times and the happiest of times and their support and love has been amazing. Also through my blog I have met scores and scores of people in the Mah Jongg community and I find them - to a one - to be caring, loving, and supportive. 

When I host, we have lunch first. I love to cook. I have the best time setting the table and preparing the luncheon. The entertaining is all a part of the game. -  Ann

MN: I assume you play NMJL rules mah jongg… have you tried other styles, and how well do those other styles suit you?

Gregg: I do play NMJL but also just learning how to play a version of Hong Kong, taught to me by Matt Shim. I am anxious to play that version here in NYC and hope to be able to teach it. Of course given that I have quite a few vintage sets, if I play the versions where jokers are not needed, I can play with those sets. I still want to learn Wright-Patterson, but feel I really need to set aside a good amount of time to really understand how that version is played.

MN: How did you get into collecting mah jongg sets and memorabilia?

Gregg: Ann inspired me. She bought a beautiful Bakelite set, and we would all play with that every week. Soon I wanted to get a set, and Ann told me about CHarli's website. Of course that really got me interested, and then I found Jim May's site, and Mahjongmahjong and I was hooked! I could not believe how beautiful and varied sets could be. And I really love all kinds of sets: the beautiful, the hand-carved, the well designed and even the unique quirky ones.


Closeup of vintage tiles and rack.

MN: What in your collection holds the greatest personal value to you, and why?


Ann: I have tried to part with several of my sets and am unable to do so. Each one has a story and holds great value to me. Some of have been given to me by Gregg and I will never part with those. Others were made by specific manufacturers in the 1920s and I am very partial to those sets. Some are very new but have personal meaning to me. 

MN: What in your collection has the most interesting backstory? 

Gregg: There's a fascinating set I have in my collection with an amazing backstory that I only found out about while doing research for another Mahjong story. It is a set that belonged to a British man living in Shanghai during the time of the Sino-Japanese war. The whole story can be seen on my website:

MN: What out there would you dream to have added to your collection; your “holy grail”? 

Ann: Oh boy, this is an easy question for me and I know Gregg is laughing right now because she definitely knows what I want! I dream about owning a vintage enrobed set! 

I love the camaraderie of the mahjong players and collectors, the variety of different ways to play the game, and of course all the wonderful sets! - Gregg


Flower tiles illustrating leisure.

MN: How did you meet your co-author, and what ongoing relationship do the two of you share?

Ann: Gregg and I were on a committee together and that was how we first met. It was through Mah Jongg that our friendship really began and we realized that we both had a lifelong, tremendous interest in art and art history. We share a number of different aspects in our ongoing relationship. We are both community-minded, we love to cook and entertain, we are great dog lovers, and we both love Mah Jongg.


MN: What inspired the idea to write a book showcasing the art of mah jongg?

Gregg: I bought a bone and bamboo set on ebay and it came with eight tiles [covered up by] fifty year old red Joker stickers. I peeled off the sticker from one tile and was immediately struck by the detailed carvings, the skill of the craftsman, and the beauty of the workmanship. I immediately tried to find out all that I could about Mahjong art, and found that nothing had been written about the images themselves. The art is wonderful, and Ann and I felt it was time to showcase it.

MN: Are there any memorable obstacles or assists regarding seeing your vision come together?

Ann: Gregg’s husband Woody was so supportive when we first started talking about this book. And then, of course, with his art design background, the book ended up being so very beautiful.

Gregg: We had so much help and support from the community that it really was amazing. We would go to people's house, where all the furniture had to be moved out of the way to make room for all the camera equipment, and lights and staging areas, and nobody even complained. They are a wonderfully supportive group. They were all so generous with the time and homes.

MN: What does the future hold for you and mah jongg?

Ann: The first thing that comes to my mind is that I hope to always be a part of our very dear and wonderful Wednesday Mah Jongg group. I would like to continue doing my daily blog which has extended my world of Mah Jongg friends to an unbelievable number. And I want to continue my study and research on what those incredible artisans created so many years ago.

MN: Any other thoughts or anecdotes that you would like to share with Mahjong News readers?

Gregg: I really hope that mahjong can take its rightful place as the unique and fabulous art form that it is. And wouldn't it be great if the Japanese Mahjong Museum's collection could be seen in a museum in China, where the game first began.

Mahjong News Book Review "Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game"