Shirley: "I grew up Hong Kong and came to Australia when I was in year 11. Mahjong was always a big part of my life and we had several tables at home.

Paul and I met at a restaurant in Crown Casino while we were dancing over 12 years ago. We started dating and when it started getting serious he met my mum. She can’t speak English that much and I said, Paul, you need to learn how to play mahjong to communicate with my mum. He learnt fast.

Eight years ago Paul decided to write a mahjong app as he couldn’t find one that was in Hong Kong style, which is what my family play. We had friends who said they played mahjong on their phones but when I looked it was solitaire.

Paul’s mahjong app has had over 1 million downloads. I joke that my husband is more Chinese than me - he will be the first to go to, and last to leave a game of mahjong. I don’t like playing mahjong as much as he does, I prefer the teaching and coaching part of the game."

Paul: "There’s a big cultural difference between us but we have mahjong in common. Shirley trained me how to play mahjong and I wanted to get better. My day job is in data analytics and programming which is why I decided to make the app – it’s called Hong Kong Style Mahjong and was the number four app in Hong Kong for a period. Given the competition in apps these days, I was just happy that I was beating Candy crush for one week! I’ve designed it so it’s free to play and you win virtual money.

I find mahjong a really interesting game. If you’ve ever seen the film Crazy Rich Asians, the whole story is a summary of the game itself. Sometimes in mahjong you win by losing."

Paul Vella, Shirley Cheng and Gold Leaf manager Frankie Yu play mahjong at the restaurant.

Paul Vella, Shirley Cheng and Gold Leaf manager Frankie Yu play mahjong at the restaurant.

Shirley: "After we designed the app, a couple of people in Docklands said we should start a social mahjong tournament. People always come to me and say I want to learn, I want to learn. There is a club in Lonsdale Street in the CBD which hosts mahjong nights run by Mahjong Australia. We love mahjong and wanted to promote it for Docklands residents so we thought if they can do it, why can’t we?

Frankie Yu who is an owner of Gold Leaf restaurant in The District Docklands gave us a free private room and a good deal on food. We host the meet ups every fortnight on a Tuesday from 6.30-8.30pm. Frankie designed a special mahjong menu for us - people who come along get entrée and drink for $15, or entrée, main meal and drink for $30."

Paul: "We applied for a City of Melbourne Connected Neighbourhoods Grant to support us and used the money to buy more mahjong sets and to help with promotion of the events. We usually get around 16 people coming along. We have regulars that come and new people often drop in."

Shirley: "For Hong Kong mahjong you need four people to play – if you lack one person it’s called a broken leg, or directly translated from Chinese to ‘three missing one’. That’s why we always have spare people. We have me my mum and nephew as a floater."

Paul: "If a beginner comes along then we sit behind them or ask the table to play with an open hand. We have at least one of us on each table so beginners can understand scoring. People who get to a good level can be very competitive."

Shirley: "Mahjong is known as the gossip table in Chinese. Paul likes to talk to people. He talks strategy and about Docklands, and we’ve met people who we wouldn’t normally meet through these nights.

For Chinese people the game is very cultural – we play it at family get-togethers, birthday parties and weddings. There’s always time set aside to play mahjong.

It’s also proven to slow down dementia. Studies show there's improvement in cognitive performance after patients affected by early dementia played mahjong. It’s also effective in improving short-term memory, attention, and logical thinking in middle-aged and elderly people. My grandma played until she was 94 and my mum is a mahjong trainer and she’s 84."

Paul: "We also see it as a way to connect people together in the Docklands community. Like many people in Docklands, we live in an apartment which can be isolating and this gives us a way to form friendships.

We’ve lived in Docklands for 10 years. I work from home so it suits me well. At night I can work on the mahjong app as I’m not commuting and use the extra time to do coding instead of watching Netflix. You win back a few hours.

We can leave the car at home, eat in the city easily by jumping on a tram, or walk for our grocery shopping. It saves fair bit of money. We’re close to so many events, and football is just a walk across the road."

Shirley: "We love the convenience. As I come from Hong Kong, I don’t mind apartment living. We love the view of the water we have – it is a good Feng shui thing for Chinese people. It’s a good lifestyle too. We love The District for shopping and we love taking our scooters on the bike tracks."

Get involved

Shirley and Paul run fortnightly mahjong social nights at Gold Leaf restaurant in The District Docklands. Check out Docklands Mahjong Community Night on Facebook to connect and for event dates.

CoM grants

Check out City of Melbourne's website for more information on its Connected Neighbourhoods Small Grant.

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