Martin Wong is a singular force in Los Angeles. As curator of the ongoing Save Music in Chinatown concert series and co-founder of high gloss, sorely missed Asian-centric pop mag Giant Robot, Wong has show he has a gift for deftly weaving a constructive and offbeat thatch of disparate cultural elements.
A cool cat, Chinatown resident and former textbook editor at McGraw-Hill (and one time Disneyland Jungle Cruise tour guide), Wong celebrates his hood’s vibrant composition. “Chinatown has a rich history of underground music — mostly punk,” he says. “It’s a wild overlapping of my favorite bands and the neighborhood where my immigrant grandparents and in-laws found community.”
1970s punk rock had thrived, as Keith Morris sang, “in the shadows of Gin Ling Way” and Wong is continuing the tradition. “It was pretty cool to discover that the Germs, Go-Go’s, X, Black Flag, Plugz, Zeros all played the Hong Kong Café and Madame Wong’s,” says the devoted father. “When my daughter started going to Castelar Elementary in Chinatown, we found out that the music program was underfunded, so we started a series of all-ages DIY punk rock matinee fundraisers — now we’re planning our 20th show in our seventh year.”
“I especially love when L.A. punk lifers and legends come back to Chinatown to play our shows,” Wong adds. “We’ve had Alice Bag, Mike Watt, Chuck Dukowski, Hector Penalosa, Alley Cats, and two secret shows by the Adolescents [that] meant a lot to me, including one of Steve Soto’s last hometown performances. When The Dils played their first show in 40 years for us, it was so packed that it was scary.”
Wong was first drawn into the punk rock vortex after witnessing a Clash show in 1983.
“The Clash changed the way I perceived culture in general, because not only did they play rad songs and look cool, they had purpose,” he explains.
It’s a quality which Wong has now brought full circle. “I love how the shows impart the DIY ethic to kids and we have grown a multi-generational community of regulars who support punk rock, public education and Chinatown,” he enthuses. “I almost started crying when the kids in front knew exactly what to do when the Gears sang ‘Don’t Be Afraid To Pogo.’ I get emotional when I think about Phranc singing “It’s Cool To Grow Old in L.A.” at my 50th birthday show, too. And I never expected my daughter and nieces to start a band called The Linda Lindas and really thrive in the space.”
All the money from ticket sales and their raffles go to Castelar’s music program, and for Wong, the Save Music series is profoundly gratifying. His punk passion and soul-deep dedication to community has become a critical aspect for many grizzled musicians and fresh faced youths alike.
“I thought my coolest days were behind me when Giant Robot ran its course in 2010,” says this dad making a difference. “But now Save Music in Chinatown is carrying on the neighborhood’s punk rock tradition, only it’s with cookies and coffee and little kids dancing in front like the Peanuts gang.”