Mahjong Mafan

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It’s a mafan time for the mahjong industry. As if declining interest wasn’t enough, there seems to be an unspoken government campaign to slowly wind the industry down.

The term “kill schools (殺校)” was used to described Government policies to cut down the number of schools in face of oversupply in education resources. Meanwhile, there is another type of ‘school’ under the radar which is also facing challenges in terms of a declining industry and unfavourable regulations.


Sunset Industry

The industry has endured a long period of struggle with the authorities ever since its birth.

About a month ago, the Administrative Appeals Board heard a case over the licence renewal of one of the Kai Kee Mahjong parlours in Kowloon City. Despite the fact that the group has been operating essentially continuously on the premises for 51 years, the Office of the Licensing Authority (OLA) under the Home Affairs Department (HAD) denied their initial renewal application as the natural licensee has changed, which resulted in the appeal.

The result of the appeal is yet to be released. But the mere fact that Kai Kee was among the first mahjong parlour operators to have obtained a mahjong licence, with its boss Alex Lam (林強國) as the founding chairman of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Mahjong Shops Association, just makes the case even more symbolic for the industry.

The industry has endured a long period of struggle with the authorities ever since its birth. Back in 1955, Mr Lam represented the industry to negotiate with the Colonial Government that wanted to have the whole business banned. The result was a total of 144 licences – which is also the number of tiles in a mahjong set – issued to ‘mahjong schools’ to make it sounds less like gambling.

According to the HAD, there are currently 66 licensed mahjong parlours – less than half of the initial cap set by the authority – in Hong Kong and the figure remained the same over the past three years.


Mission Impossible

While the OLA is not particularly harsh on granting licence renewal, it is almost impossible to make a successful application for a new licence.

Gordon Lam (林偉平), nephew to Alex Lam, is responsible for overlooking the operation of Kai Kee’s oldest parlour in Yau Ma Tei. He told HT that an increasingly unfavourable business environment is the main reason accounting for the downturn.

“So far we are doing pretty good. We still hire about 50 staff just for this parlour”, says Gordon Lam. “However the mahjong industry in general is indeed declining. In fact, we have had to adopt the mainland-styles besides the Hong Kong one in order to attract more people – mainland tourists.”

It is an open secret that the Government has no interest in protracting the life of this sunset industry. According to Gordon Lam, while the OLA is not particularly harsh on granting licence renewal, it is almost impossible to make a successful application for a new licence even though the authority insists that the application procedure still functions.

Between 2012 and 2014, the authority received a total of six applications for establishing new mahjong parlours. Five were rejected for failing to meet the requirements while the remaining one was withdrawn by the applicant.

Back to the appeal case, the respondent representing the OLA argued that five out of eight education and religious institutions near the Kowloon city parlour have expressed objections. However, the appellant pointed out that the response from these institutions tended to be nonspecific and were merely expressing concerns over gambling in general.

It seems that the Government does not has the patience to wait for the inevitable requiem either. Parlours are from time to time ‘harassed’ by the Police in the name of inspections. This makes the struggle to survive even harder, to the extent that many had chosen to quit ‘voluntarily’.

“Basically the Home Affairs Department want to, over time, eliminate this industry.” Commentator and activist on corporate and economic governance David Webb says. “They want no new licences to be granted and the old ones gradually die off.”


“Cogent Need”

The guidelines do not define what a “cogent need” means.

The Government, and indeed the public, tend to link the operation of mahjong parlours to triad activities. Before The HAD took over licensing issues, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Police. These, understandably, explain the Government’s stance to the matter.

Gordon Lam slams the rationale. “It is true that mahjong parlours were connected to triads in the past. But nowadays we are doing open and normal business – and we do call the Police when incidents occur.”

As quoted from official policy guidelines, “government’s policy is that a mahjong parlour should, as a general rule, be allowed to be set up only if a cogent need for such an outlet is established.” The guidelines do not define what a “cogent need” means. But granting licences could certainly help counter the growth of illegal gambling activities to some extent.

Many operators believe that as long as there is no clear signs of connections between their business and triad activities, the Government should not make any pre-assumption and put the practice to an end.

“The mahjong industry could also be seen as an intangible cultural heritage, just like the cantonese opera. This is an industry that should be encouraged to sustain itself rather than restricted and gradually shut down.” Webb says.

Mahjong may be a sunset industry, but it carries more than just mafan – to vanish or not to vanish, that should not be the Government’s question.