The set came in a small wooden box with some Chinese characters carved into the sliding lid. I’d assumed they had some connection to Mah-Jong but recently discovered it was a poem.
Inside I found a layer of tissue paper and, strangely, tiles covered in dust.
The advertisement in ebay just showed the box slightly opened, a few tiles displayed and – worryingly – a tile count below the normal 144, so it was with some apprehension that I examined the contents. The dust, I finally realised, was bone dust. The set had never been used.
An email exchange revealed that the sellers had never actually played the game. The set had belonged to an uncle who had worked for Cunard, a famous shipping company responsible for iconic ships like the ‘Queen Mary’, ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and ‘QE2’. The old set had laid in their attic since the 1960s. He had probably bought it in China sometime during the 1920s or 1930s.
The tiles in modern sets are usually made from plastic, but this was made from traditional materials: bone, dove-tailed onto bamboo. It was probably one of many hundreds produced for the early 20th century Western market, a demand so great it required shiploads of cow bone imports from America to sustain it.
Two small bone dice – a large dot for the ‘one’ – and a batch of tally sticks, also made from bone, completed the set. It’s a fairly modest one compared with those that came housed in ornately carved boxes, but nevertheless it does show some of the craftsmanship of those early designers.
The box is a small one (6½” x 16½” x 1¾”) that would be suitable for travelling with – and the tiles just 1” x ¾”.