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What Makes Singapore’s Mahjong Special

If you live in Singapore, you would most likely have come across the familiar clacking sounds of mahjong tiles shuffled feverishly around a square table. The players of this well-beloved game are not limited to retired aunties looking to pass the time. No, this game has captured the hearts of all generations; from youngsters playing for fun (and perhaps a bit of hongbao money) during Chinese New Year, to the seasoned pros whose leisure time is filled perfecting their skills.


Clearly, this game is compelling in today’s society – and it has been, for centuries. Developed in the 19 th century in China, it has taken the world by storm since the early 20 th century, spawning regional variants throughout Eastern and South Eastern Asia. Mahjong has also gradually begun making its presence known in other countries such as South Africa. Nonetheless, despite its ubiquity, the way Mahjong is played in Singapore is pretty distinctive and unique to this island-state. Let’s dive into what makes Singapore’s mahjong different and special!


Number of tiles


Let’s start from the basics. While most players in Singapore assume that a hand in the game plays with 13 tiles (plus one winning tile, for a total of 14 tiles), this differs across countries. For instance, the players in Taiwan play with three more tiles. They use 16 tiles (including one winning tile, which equates to 17 tiles). A complete hand contains five sets and a pair.


Addition of four animal bonus tiles


As the old saying goes, the more, the merrier! That applies to the game of mahjong as well. Singapore mahjong differs from the mahjong played in Hong Kong as it includes four animal bonus tiles: the cat, mouse, chicken and centipede. Curiously enough, these animals come as two pairs with a predator-prey relationship: the cat and the rat, as well as the chicken and the centipede. Moreover, unlike the flower tiles (which is the other set of bonus tiles), the animal tiles are not numbered.


Additionally, compared to the flower tiles, animal tiles belong to any player. For flower tiles, the numbers on the flowers correspond to the four seats at the mahjong table, and so, belongs to a different player. However, as animal tiles are not numbered, they belong to any player and any animal that a player draws would count towards their score.


Due to the bonus animal tiles, there is an extra way to achieve a bonus as compared to the Hong Kong version. When a player wins a hand, a complete set of animal tiles will score one double, in addition to the double individually scored for each animal, for a stunning total of five doubles! This uniquely Singaporean element is also known as 动物杠加台 dòngwùgàng jiātái.


Scoring system


Singapore-styled mahjong further departs from the Hong Kong-styled mahjong in terms of the scoring system, where some hands are included and others excluded. While the Singaporean scoring is similar to the one employed by the Chinese classical system, variations exist to account for the different set of tiles used. This in turn prompts players to develop different strategies in playing mahjong.


The most significant difference from Chinese classical scoring would be the removal of calculating basic points from the possession of certain tile combinations and the replacement of that with a fixed base stake.


In Singapore-styled mahjong, you can win points from your opponents by:

(1) winning a hand with one or more scoring elements; or

(2) achieving certain tile combinations.


Scoring elements refer to the various tile combinations, patterns, and winning situations that can give value to a winning hand, expressed in the form of doubles. As many of the scoring elements can be combined, the final value of a winning hand can be fairly high! Moreover, there are certain systems of playing that allow payouts midway through the game if certain conditions, such as a kong, are met.


Differences in house rules


The way this game is played differs across various countries as well! For instance, in America, before the actual gameplay commences, players will first proceed with The Charleston, which offers players the opportunity to swap tiles with the other players. In Japan, another key difference is that each player’s discard pile is arranged, so that no player can wait on a tile that was previously discarded, therefore ramping up the difficulty. There are even variations within countries themselves! In Singapore, some players accept certain rules and disregard others. It is therefore always crucial to check prior to beginning a game.


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Mahjong is truly something almost every Singaporean knows and loves. Acknowledging its special characteristics and understanding its key differences from other variants merely heightens our appreciation for this intricate and delicate game. So, what are you waiting for? Grab your familiar kakis, family, or even long-lost school mates, and gather around the table for a good ol’ session of Singaporean styled mahjong!


Credit: Content is in collaboration with @mahjonglah

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