Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Madame Esther Wong has Died

I have no picture at this time to share with you, although I photographed her many times.

Madame Wong has died.

here's the story from an LA Times writer. The title is clickable to the full story.

Esther Wong -- godmother of punk music
Myrna Oliver, Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Los Angeles -- Esther Wong, the unlikely "godmother of punk" who showcased such groups as Oingo Boingo at her Madame Wong's clubs in L.A.'s Chinatown and Santa Monica in the late 1970s and 1980s, has died. She was 88.

Ms. Wong died Sunday at her home in Los Angeles of natural causes. She had suffered from emphysema.

Slow to accept punk rock, new wave and other 1970s music, the colorful and sometimes controversial Ms. Wong came to be one its most ardent patrons in Los Angeles. Her Madame Wong's restaurant in Chinatown, which she opened in 1970 with her late husband, George Wong, originally featured Polynesian bands. But when that music attracted smaller and smaller crowds, she was persuaded in 1978 to try rock musicians for one month.

The switch immediately increased her nightly crowd from as few as a dozen or so to about 350, and she declared the restaurant a stage for rock, punk and new wave bands.

"Before, I didn't think I'd ever like rock music," she told the Times in 1979. "Now I can turn it on, and it doesn't bother me."

At Madame Wong's, which closed in 1985, and Madame Wong's West in Santa Monica, which operated from 1978 to 1991, she proved a staunch supporter of new and local groups. Besides Oingo Boingo, her stages hosted Police, X, the Motels, 20/20, the Knack, the Know, the Textones, the Go-Gos, the Plimsouls, the Nu-Kats, the Bus Boys, Plane English, the Naughty Sweeties and more.

She opened the Santa Monica club, she once told the Los Angeles Times, because there were too many worthy groups seeking bookings for her Chinatown club alone to accommodate. And she closed each club as new wave and then other forms of rock lost popularity.

Ms. Wong chose the groups by listening to audition tapes -- although she had to give up playing them in her car.

"I got a very bad temper," she told the Times in 1980. "When there's a bad tape, I throw it outside the window. One day I almost hit the (California) Highway Patrol car that was right next to me."

A no-nonsense businesswoman, Ms. Wong was disparaged by some bands as something of a dragon lady. She once stopped a show until two members of the Ramones cleaned up what they'd written on the bathroom walls.

She limited clientele to those over 21, eliminating the huge younger rock audience to the distress of several bands. She all but banned girl singers, calling them "no good, always trouble." And she regularly toured her establishment during performances sniffing suspiciously for marijuana smoke.

Ms. Wong could be jealous and vindictive -- refusing to book or rebook any group that played her Chinatown rival venue, the Hong Kong Cafe. But she was also beloved by many of the bands as a favorite patron or godmother, not only for giving them a venue but for her payment policy. Each group simply split the entire admission fee.

"I like it because you get paid by your popularity," Gary Valentine of the Know told the Times in 1979. "That's the place we've made the most money in L.A."

Jeff Green, co-manager of the Naughty Sweeties, also praised Ms. Wong in the heyday of her clubs, telling the Times in 1980: "Quirky she is, but she offers the best opportunity in this city to groups who can attract paying fans. Sure, she's difficult at times, but a lot less difficult than other local club owners."
Born and educated in Shanghai, Ms. Wong grew up traveling the world with her importer father. She moved to Los Angeles in 1949 to escape the Communist regime and worked for two decades as a clerk and trainer of clerks for a shipping company before opening her restaurant.

Ms. Wong is survived by her second husband, Harry Wong; a son, Frank Wong, a daughter, Melinda Joy Braun; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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