All’s fair in love and mahjong – by Amy Daml


It’s summer in Beijing. The city’s street corners are dotted with knee-high folding tables, each one magnetised to attract all men in the neighbourhood. The magnetic field grows in strength with every addition to the huddle until no male passerby can repel it. The inseparable gentlemen roll their sweaty shirts up over their bellies, puff their cigarettes and collectively exhale a heavy, smoky breath that saturates the air.

At the center of one such force field, a friendly mahjong game is interrupted when Peng’s petulant opponent smashes a Tsingdao bottle over his head. Through the sweltering haze, Peng stares at the shattered end of the bottle. Piss-yellow fizz mixes with charred mystery meat and mahjong tiles as it runs off the corner of the rusty card table.

Peng glances at the yellow-haired foreign girl gaping at the scene from her balcony, wet laundry draped over her arm. She probably expects him to bust out his best kung fu moves, but she will be disappointed. That’s not how it’s really done in China.

At the still-intact end of the green bottle, Peng’s opponent is haphazardly perched on the tiptoes of his unsteady feet. His face is the colour of pomegranate juice. He sways in a perfect figure of eight, and seems to have learned how to see with his eyes closed. Peng is not intimidated. He rises from the table with the slow and calculated confidence of superiority, letting his rolled-up undershirt sink deep into the folds between his man-breasts and his hardened, rotund belly.

Though his front could rival that of his pregnant wife, it does not slow Peng from dodging the man’s next swipe. The sound of smashing glass and the word “cheater” rings in his ear, as perspiring forearms dispatch from the magnetised mass behind him to prevent a counter-strike. But none is needed.

Peng blinks the other men’s sweat out of his blurry eyes to find that his enemy is dripping with blood.  He is astounded. The girl with the yellow hair stares at the train wreck three stories below, wondering what level of intoxication is required to puncture your own arm in an attempt to stab someone. 

Unashamed, the injured fighter licks his wounds and accuses the other men of causing them. Their voices reach stadium decibels as the argument escalates, to the benefit of the insatiably curious neighbours. The shopkeeper across the street summons her husband from his TV programme to watch the live drama. The fruit seller positions her toddler a few feet closer to get the best view. The man passing by on the scooter stops cold in the middle of the street and lights a cigarette as he watches it all unfold.

The audience pressure is too much for Peng not to respond. A stare-down is simply not possible with a rival whose eyes can’t focus, but it also wouldn’t be fair to punch a bleeding man. So Peng thrusts his massive stomach into his opponent’s chest, forcibly pinning him against the group of men. He violently wags his finger inches from the man’s face while shouting at him until his trapped enemy’s instincts kick in. He pushes back against Peng with a force so strong it breaks up the male cluster behind him, freeing him to stalk off, slurring profanities.

Peng sits back down. The neighborhood unfreezes, the foreign girl goes back to hanging her laundry, and the newly unmagnified men disperse.


Thirty seconds walk down the street, Peng’s enemy plots his revenge. The colours of the evening street life blur as he takes stock of potential makeshift weapons. He settles on the concrete post – not one of the two precariously propping up the sleeping security guard, but a smaller one protecting the unused parking space that blocks a driveway. Using all of his strength (and five attempts), he slings the post over his shoulder and staggers back towards the battlefield, cackling at his own brilliance.

As he picks up speed, full-blown maniacal laughter seizes him – and distracts his navigational senses. He runs ten metres past his friends before realising that something doesn’t look right. He stops. Peng is not where he left him.

The concrete post displaces his balance until he turns around, only to face Peng’s unsuspecting back. He squints to double check his target, then moves forward, building momentum both in speed and malicious laughter.

Wailing his demonic battle cry, he arrives within feet of Peng before contemplating the repercussions of sucker-punching someone with a heavy piece of concrete. Someone is supposed to hold you back!

He decides instead to call Peng out by swinging the post like an axe and hitting it on the ground while grunting like an animal. The neighbourhood once again assume their positions as Peng turns around.

The two men glare at each other, equal in uncertainty about how to proceed. Peng calculates the odds of his bare hands and agility against the force of recklessly swung concrete. His enemy, exhausted from the journey, struggles to remember what he’s even angry about.

Fortunately, the sleepy security guard traipses over and breaks the tension. Without making eye contact – or any attempt to diffuse the situation – he lazily retrieves the concrete post, much to the relief of the man in over his head.

Fresh mystery meat and green bottles arrive on the table. The mahjong pieces are rearranged, and Peng graciously invites his opponent to a new game. With a confirmed ending to the fight, the yellow-haired girl closes her window, disappointed that she didn’t see a single crouching tiger or hidden dragon. The neighbours return to their lives. And magnetic energy surges from the table, sucking nearby men back in, one at a time.

Amy Daml is a host of the show EZ Cafe at 91.5 FM

This story is from the Anthill-Cuju Writers and Rum night