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Exit the Dragon

Esther Wong

Daniel Krall
Esther Wong

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 12/28/2005

Esther Wong had rules for the punk and new-wave bands that played her club. No girls, for one thing. Girls in bands were “no good, always trouble.” No pot. No graffiti (she reportedly stopped one show midsong until the Ramones removed some scribblings they’d left in the women’s room). And most of all, don’t get crazy—you might damage the gorgeous hand-carved wooden bar. Wong enforced these rules with fierce consistency—“I got a very bad temper,” she cheerfully admitted to a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1980—but then again, Esther Wong had outrun trouble all her life. A bunch of punk kids didn’t scare her.

Born in 1917 in Shanghai, the daughter of an automobile importer, her prosperous family lived well until the Japanese invasion of 1937 decimated their assets and landed them under house arrest. Undeterred, Wong rebuilt her fortunes as proprietress of an exclusive high-fashion house. But she was trampled again by the advancing Chinese Communists, and she and her husband fled to Los Angeles in 1949, where she worked at a shipping company for two decades before opening her eponymous restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown.

Not unlike Mabuhay Gardens, the Filipino nightclub in San Francisco where Dead Kennedys, the Nuns, and Devo played some of their first shows, Madame Wong’s was a Chinese restaurant that, starting in 1978, cleared away a section of the dining area for the crowds that came to hear the bands of L.A.’s new-wave scene. The audition process was simple—you gave Madame Wong a tape and she would listen to it in her car. If you were bad, she threw the tape out the window (once, she recounted, almost hitting a passing California Highway Patrol car.) If you were good, you got to play. Oingo Boingo passed the cassette test. So did the Police, and X, and the Knack, as well as scores of other obscure and not-so-obscure darlings of the pre-MTV alternapop era.

A tireless self-promoter, Wong knew the value of the novelty of a tiny Chinese grandmother giving these crazy kids a place to play. A photo from the era shows her posing proudly in the meager space she allotted for bands, her gourd-shaped face smiling pleasantly but her arms crossed over her prim cheongsam in fierce determination. She didn’t resist the media-bestowed title “Godmother of Punk.” But the stereotypical Decline of Western Civilization-era L.A. punk bands—Black Flag, the Germs, the Dils—were too crazy, loud, and angry to play Madame Wong’s. (She jealously refused to book any band that played the nearby—and more raucous—Hong Kong Café, the venue that, along with Whisky A-Go-Go and the Starwood, purists consider Los Angeles punk’s real ground zero.) Her “girls cause trouble” decree was, in reality, somewhat flexible—pop-friendly, female-led groups such as the Motels and the Go-Gos were allowed to pack the room with their relatively well-behaved fans. What she didn’t want were female bands like the Bags or Castration Squad, whose angry, uncompromised stage presence drew a less decorous clientele. There was room for only one Dragon Lady (as Casey Kasem once dubbed her) at Madame Wong’s, and that was Madame Wong herself.

Even though she was interested only in punk rock’s money, not its revolution, she still nurtured the bands that played at her club with grandmotherly concern. Her payments were the most generous in the area, each band splitting the entire admission fee. She wasn’t Santa Claus, however: One musician, after playing a show to an audience of six, was reportedly advised afterward by Wong, “Next time, you’ll do better”—leaving it unclear whether that was an encouragement or a threat.

Her clubs—the original Madame Wong’s in L.A. and Madame Wong’s West in Santa Monica—had both closed by 1991, but she remained indomitable. “She would always take any problem or situation head-on, she was not afraid of anyone,” her daughter Melinda Braun said. Wong passed away Aug. 14 at the age of 88.

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