Esther Wong: Her Flawed Legacy
Upon her 2005 death from lung cancer, Esther Wong's place in the city's rock lore was solidified by a Los Angeles Times obituary that called the 88-year-old mastermind behind Madame Wong's in Chinatown the "Godmother of punk." The phrase quickly spread throughout the Internet, and the title became firmly entrenched. (Check her Wikipedia page.) Even today, clubs looking for a bit of cachet tend to invoke the Wong name.
The problem? In truth, Wong's place in the punk scene was tangential at best and dubious at worst. Just ask local punk legends like Keith Morris and Alice Bag. On her blog, Bag — the leader of the Bags, who was barred from the club due to Wong's policy disallowing female performers — wrote shortly after Wong's death: "She was no friend to punk rock."
Although Madame Wong's hosted some of the country's most exciting bands — including the Police and the Ramones — when it came to the breaking Southern California punk and hardcore sound that forever changed music, Wong's venue was not a major player. Rather, it was the Hong Kong Café, kitty-corner from Madame Wong's on Gin Ling Way, which hosted memorable shows from cutting-edge punk bands like the Bags, the Weirdos, and the Germs, none of whom played Wong's.
Hong Kong Café was the real spot for punk, says Morris, an original member of trailblazers Black Flag and later the Circle Jerks, adding that Madame Wong's lineup was "a little friendlier, Oingo Boingo, that kind of stuff."
"We weren't on her list of people to call," he says. (Black Flag played Wong's once, but not until they had become a top-tier draw; the Circle Jerks never did.)
"I was totally offended when the L.A. Times gave [Wong] that credit," famed punk-era photographer Jenny Lens has written.
The most likely story? Wong cared less about the scene than about her club's bottom line. While that certainly is not unreasonable for a business proprietor, it seems an odd stance for a purported godmother of punk.
"I don't know if she even liked the music," says Peter Case, singer and guitarist for Los Angeles new wave act the Plimsouls, who played her venue regularly. "She cared about the club, about getting people in, getting them to buy drinks, food — that's what she was into."
Still, that hasn't stopped her legacy from continuing to gather steam.
Last year trendsetting French promoter Simonez Wolf opened a pop-up club in Manhattan's Chinatown and named it Madame Wong's. (Wong's surviving family — none of whom could be reached to comment for this story — have remained mum about the various appropriations of her name.) Before shutting down eight months later, it became wildly popular and was the subject of a New York Times profile.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles in 2010, former FYF Festival promoter Ben Kramer and a few of his roommates helped throw shows at the actual former Madame Wong's venue, hosting indie acts like Wavves, Devendra Banhart and Vampire Weekend. They also borrowed the Madame Wong name for the occasion, which was fitting since Kramer happened to be living in the spot, which had been converted into a live-in loft.
Turns out the venue's renovators had left much of the original character intact. "It had the same high ceilings and odd contours with a very Chinatown look — the faux Chinese architecture, the circular doorways, random knickknacks," he recalled to L.A. Weekly in 2010.
Needless to say, the shows were packed.
Wong was born in Shanghai in 1917 and arrived in the United States in 1949, seeking refuge from China's communist regime. Well educated, she'd traveled the world with her father, who had been an automobile importer, and she worked as a clerk for a shipping company for 20 years. She opened Madame Wong's in 1970 at 949 Sun Mun Way, with the help of her first husband, George, who was Hawaiian.
Originally conceived as a Polynesian-themed restaurant complete with tiki drinks and late-night tropical dance revues, the venue itself was a dark palace filled with intricately carved wood, built in the ornamental style of Los Angeles' Chinatown.
Eventually, however, it became obvious that the Polynesian theme wasn't bringing in enough customers.
The idea to host bands to help rejuvenate the struggling business came from a young show promoter named Paul Greenstein, who would later become known for purchasing the struggling Silver Lake fixture Millie's Café, reopening it and making it into an L.A. institution.
Greenstein approached Wong, proposing a trial run with rock groups playing evenings for crowds paying $2.50 a head.
Wong herself took on the task of choosing the bands, listening to large stacks of tapes from interested performers, often while driving around the city. "When there's a bad tape, I throw it outside the window," she told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1980. "One day I almost hit the Highway Patrol car that was right next to me."
The music that appealed to her ears was, in large part, new wave, leading to the booking of local acts, including Oingo Boingo, the Go Go's, the Plimsouls and the Knack. As the club gained popularity, it was not uncommon to see celebrities like David Bowie stalking about.
New wave was, of course, the music du jour of the young in the late 1970s and early '80s, and by largely adopting the format, Madame Wong's became a success. (Wong later opened Madame Wong's West in Santa Monica, and it had a successful run before closing in 1991, six years after her Chinatown flagship expired.)
But for the young punks it was Hong Kong Café that was really on the cutting edge. In the wake of Madame Wong's success, the club opened in 1979 to a raucous show by seminal Chicano punk act the Plugz. The two venues quickly developed something of a rivalry, with Wong declaring that any band playing the Hong Kong would be banned from her club, though the venues' differing agendas largely made her threat moot.
The Hong Kong closed in 1981, but during its short run it made a big impact, featuring important, ground-level punk acts, including the Alley Cats, the Weirdos, Catholic Disciples and the Bags. Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris gathered much of the live footage for her documentary The Decline of Western Civilization on its premises.
But while Madame Wong's remains the era's nostalgic favorite, the Hong Kong has largely faded from memory — except, of course, to those who attended the wild shows there.
"I loved the Hong Kong and thought Wong's was completely bogus," wrote first-wave punk fixture (and former L.A. Weekly jazz columnist) Brick Wahl in 2010.
That's not to say Wong doesn't deserve credit for fostering a raucous music scene in a neighborhood that previously lacked one. "She stuck her neck out," says Peter Case. "There was some real resistance from the neighborhood when she first started, but it didn't seem to bother her. At least she didn't let it show. She was fierce."
Wong also had the foresight to seize upon a mythic time in Los Angeles rock history, and her willingness to be open to fresh music that was far removed from her own life experiences helped transform L.A.'s musical landscape. And for that she should be remembered.
But the "Godmother of punk"? Not even close.
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