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Farewell, Madame Wong

Illustration by J.T. SteinyAt the 100-plus-year-old Douglas & Zook Mortuary in Monrovia, there were more than a few ’80s-era skinny-tie power-pop players, conspicuous with their dyed black Vandykes and pattern-baldness-perforated rocker do’s, at the memorial service for punk and new-wave club legend Esther Wong. One guy showed up driving a Viper, another a Maserati, but it was Paul Greenstein, leader of the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters, former power-pop veteran on the Madame Wong circuit and one-time owner of the Silver Lake diner Millie’s, who made the best impression. He rode up on an ancient motorcycle, replete with sidecar, a legitimate outsider who cared enough to show genuine respect. The family laid out plenty of artifacts — a poster trumpeting “The Police Invade Madame Wong’s,” as in that Sting fellow’s former outfit; numerous yellowed new-wave periodicals that ran features on the notorious Dragon Lady (as Casey Kasem dubbed her during an on-air interview); a pair of gold records certifying big sales by Wong faves the Motels, presented to her by Capitol for nurturing Martha Davis’ hit-spinning new-wave band; and, touchingly, a basket of Madame Wong memorial buttons, the lettering done in high chop-suey house menu font. Pinning one on sucked me back to the desperately fallow late ’70s, when rock & roll had inbred itself to a near-vegetative state and any independent street-bred band had about as much a chance of getting booked into a Hollywood club as the Hillside Strangler did of eluding prosecution. Wong was no new hand at wily entrepreneurial schemes, but the reach it took for her to foster such unpredictable talents as the Ramones, X and the Circle Jerks indicated a shrewd mixture of high-risk tolerance and business smarts. Of course, she also knew enough not to give any of these renegades more than the shortest of leashes while prowling her premises — spontaneous malfeasance from any of her club’s oddball characters almost always inspired one of Wong’s memorable fits.But the portrait that emerged of Wong at the memorial was a personal history of poignant drama: Wong was born into a wealthy Shanghai family, one whose patriarch made a killing as the licensed importer of the Nash automobile, and she led a life of drastic luxury — all of it stripped away when the Japanese hit town during WWII and placed the family under house arrest. She married a pilot for the Flying Tigers and, following the war, ran one of the most exclusive high fashion houses in Shanghai (clientele not accompanied by a suitably proper social reference were invariably refused). Such status ensured a grievous fall into refugee purgatory when the Commies began knocking heads in ’48, and Wong fled for the United States, flexing her commercial acumen with a variety of restaurants and clubs, including her most famous outpost, Madame Wong’s in Chinatown, as well as Santa Monica’s Madame Wong’s West. By the time she was pulling the plug on the Ramones and leading the LAPD on a chase through Chinatown alleys for the Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris (“Too much punk rock!”), Wong had established herself as a Los Angeles fixture — part crusader, part ruthless ball buster. The final straw, not long after the Morris hunt, came when a fight broke out during an Alley Cats gig and, blaming troublesome punk rock chicks (starting with the Alley Cats female bassist) for a host of sins, she ceased using any punk bands and concentrated solely on the skinny-tie power-pop crew.When the officiating reverend John Reid asked for attendees to stand and share memories, only one former Wong’s bandstand regular, Marty Harris, did so. “I remember playing there one night when we only drew six people. Madame Wong told me afterward, ‘Next time, you’ll do better.’ I took that as part encouragement — and part threat.”