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My fellow Offender Alfredo reminded me in his last post of how hot Debbie Harry is. And that made me think of the time I saw her live at a small Los Angeles club called Madame Wong’s West which I can pinpoint as the night I entered puberty (more on this later). But I would not have had that experience if it were not for Esther Wong a.k.a. the “Godmother of Punk.”

MadameWongBorn in Shanghai in 1917, Wong immigrated to the United States in 1949. In the 1970s and ‘80s, she owned two restaurants/clubs—Madame Wong’s in L.A.’s Chinatown and Madame Wong’s West in Santa Monica—that became the beacon for some of the greatest punk and rock n’ roll bands of the era.

I first met Wong as a young boy. By that time, she was in her 60s and looked like your typical Chinese grandmother. Look at her photo above. That does not look like the face of a woman who would revolutionize rock n’ roll, yet that’s exactly what she did. When the Polynesian bands she first started booking at her establishments weren’t bringing in customers, she turned to rock acts, saw her business take off and a legend was born. These are some of the acts that played at her clubs, many of whom got their first breaks there: The Police, The Motels, The Knack, Guns N’ Roses, X, The Go-Gos, Oingo Boingo, Black Flag, Fear and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

A young G N' R at Madame Wong's

It was the place to see the newest and hippest bands. I had to be a part of that scene. Music was my life. Music was what kept me sane. Music was my only friend as I moved from school to school; trying my best to fit in as (usually) the only Asian kid. The only problem was you had to be 21 to get into Madame Wong’s clubs and, well, I was barely in junior high. I won’t go into the highly illegal details of how, but I found a way in. 

The other thing you need to know about Wong was that she may have looked like a demure Chinese grandmother but she had the meanest temper I’ve ever seen. She used to walk around her club and if she smelled marijuana on you, she’d grab you by the ear and drag you out. Once she made the Ramones clean up the graffiti they painted in her restroom before allowing them to play and they did it without complaining. They had no choice. She was tough as nails and you did not want to be on the receiving end of her wrath. And one of the things she hated more than anything was underage punks sneaking into her club. I speak from personal experience.

The first of many times I got thrown out by her happened when I was 15. She caught me red-handed with a fake I.D. and a flask of Jack Daniels. Yes, she grabbed me by the ear and dragged me out in front of all these gorgeous “older” women (i.e. college chicks) I was trying to impress.

Normally, she’d throw you out on the sidewalk and that would be that, but she decided I deserved a special lecture. “Aren’t you ashamed?” She tore into me. “A nice Chinese boy like you should be at home studying, not carrying on like a low-life!”

I told her I was Korean.

She stared at me for a long time and then said, “Well…then that explains it.” This was followed by her distinctive booming laughter.

madamewong signDespite the danger, I kept coming back. The music was too good, the girls were too beautiful (I still love a woman who can rock n’ roll) and it was someplace where I felt like I belonged—I was with my fellow freaks. Wong would occasionally catch me, throw me out and give me the same lecture about being a Korean low-life. But nothing could compare with the thrill of seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers take the stage wearing nothing but socks on their dicks or listening to an unknown band named Guns N’ Roses debut their new song “Welcome to the Jungle” or the night that I’m pretty sure I entered puberty. Which brings me back to Debbie Harry.

debbie-harry-sizedHarry was playing a post-Blondie solo set and I managed to squeeze up right to the lip of the stage. And all I can say is she was smoking HOT and all of a sudden I started feeling strange sensations under my belt that I had never felt before. She had this pink handkerchief she would use to wipe the sweat off her face and other parts of her body. At one point, she looked right at me, winked and threw me her handkerchief. It was wet from her sweat and smelled like her perfume and I’m pretty sure I had a full-body orgasm on the spot. Don’t think that’s happened since. And I have Wong to thank for that. Hell, anyone who has a boner for rock n’ roll owes the woman a huge debt.

Wong died in 2005 at the age of 88. I hadn’t seen her since her last club closed in 1991 but hearing of her passing had an emotional effect on me. I’m generally not a nostalgic guy but it really felt like an important piece of my childhood was now gone forever. That night, I drove out to the location of the original Madame Wong’s in Chinatown, blasted the Ramones on my headphones and poured a flask of Jack Daniels on the sidewalk. And I swear I could hear her sighing and reprimanding me like she did in the old days, “well, you’re Korean…that explains it.”

estherwong

24 Comments

  1. What a great story. It’s not everyday you get to hear stories of old Chinese ladies doing something other than knitting, so thanks for posting this!

  2. The things I learn from you and about you on this BLOG. Keep up the amazing read Philip.

  3. Great story… I love reading about stuff like this but hate knowing that I missed out on these experiences.

    Also, I will buy that handkerchief off you for one million dollars.

  4. Handkerchief not for sale. And you shouldn’t feel bad for missing out. There’s things going on now that you and others will look back later and realize it was special when you didn’t at the time. I don’t think anyone knew hanging out at Wong’s back then what it would come to mean later. When Guns N’ Roses took the stage for the first time, I guarantee you that no one thought, “wow, I’m watching history” and if they say that now, they’re lying. They were a kick-ass band but so were a lot of other bands.

    Around this time I remember watching a young band named No Doubt. At the time, John Spence was their charismatic lead singer and Gwen Stefani just sang backgrounds but she was so shy and awkward that I remember thinking, “she’s only in this band ’cause her brother started it but she’ll never get anywhere.” But when John committed suicide and Gwen was forced to take center stage she really blossomed, so goes to show you what I know. I still kick myself when I remember I had a chance to ask her out but didn’t ’cause I thought she was too geeky and unattractive.

  5. I have the same feelings for CBGBs growing up in NY.

    I did however manage to catch a show or two at MW’s moving here in 1990 but can’t remember the bands as those days are a bit of a blur. Really a shame how LA (and now everywhere it seems) has no respect/love for it’s past. Al’s Bar, MW’s, Nomads, etc…

  6. Saw the King Bees at MWW back in 1980. Show made me wish I’d gone to UCLA instead of Ariz. State. The Phoenix punk scene struggled and the venues were fire traps.

  7. I loved Wongs Chinatown and still remember seeing the Motels. Always remember Martha holding her mike into the sax during the solo on Total Control.

    Saw John Hiatt lots of times.

    I was young then!

    Graham Parker mentioned Madam in a song called Manoeuvres on The Up Escalator.

  8. Agree with P. I wanted to be Ben Fong Torres, live the Rolling Stone rock journalist life. Wound up interviewing Martha of Motels over the phone as she was making breakfast, saw them at Starwood. First college journalist to interview Tom Petty — 9 a.m. at his publicist’s on the Strip. He was a country boy and we smoked lots of cigs. But I said, “Man, gotta tell you, I haven’t listened to your album yet.” Damn the Torps. He said, that’s okay, let’s just rap. And we talked about music, his influences, Van the Man. His show with the Heartbreakers later that night at the Whiskey was very good. Then he got big. Hung for a while Kung Fu Carradine David. We shared. RIP, you were a wild one.

    Whatshisname from Cheap Trick, the Huntz Hall guitar hero, sorry, Rick Nielsen? was awful normal when interviewed, then became a wild man onstage. Never got to Ian Hunter of Mott, but famous Bill Siddons of Doors fame let me into the Santa Monica Civic. Nat Adderly, Pat Paulsen, Steeleye Span and some others…what I can remember.

  9. The Police at Madame Wongs. Fake ID. Flustered suburban kid. Legendary evening. Awesome post, Phil.

  10. madame wong is one foxy minx

  11. for the Record: it was Paul Greenstein who 1st brought the idea and booked the 1st bands at Madame wongs in China town. when she saw how much business it brought in she fired him.

  12. Hey Phil,

    Did you see the film I WAS BORN, BUT… by Roddy Bogawa. It’s awesome! After the death of Joey Ramone, Bogawa goes on a journey, revisiting the old haunts of his punk rock childhood in the LA scene and Madam Wongs is very prominent.

  13. In the early ’80s I was publisher of LA Weekly, and she would call and scream at me whenever we screwed up her ad, which happened all too frequently. I’d do my best to apologize, but she kept screaming, so I’d put the receiver down and do other stuff till she was finished.

  14. I remember going to the Santa Monica branch to eat once with a guy who introduced me to my lifelong love of Minimalism and his son, who was a budding turntablist….it was probably only a year or two before it closed. There was no band, but it made an impression on me anyway.

    Thanks for sharing this, Phil!

  15. I love all these posts on original offenders.

    “Once she made the Ramones clean up the graffiti they painted in her restroom before allowing them to play and they did it without complaining.”
    That is SO badass.

    Also, what an amazing businesswoman.

  16. Esther Wong was my grandmother. It’s amazing to hear all these stories about Madame Wong’s and the people who were there. I was only 3 years old when Madame Wong’s West closed, so I obviously never got to experience it for myself, and as far as I can remember, she never talked about the restaurants. To everyone who shared their memories, thank you.

  17. Hate to crash the party, but the Ramones never played Madame Wong’s. (Complete lists of all of the shows in their long career are fully compiled in two of the Ramones’ biographies.) And, except for a brief experimental tryout of a handful of shows, Madame Wong banned most punk rock bands from playing there. It was the nearby Hong Kong Cafe that booked the punk bands in Chinatown in the late-’70s. Madame Wong’s primarily booked power-pop and new wave bands. She was never the “godmother of punk”; she hated punk rock and even banned women musicians for a long time because she felt that women in bands caused fights (!?). Sometimes the truth is stranger than this rose-colored nostalgia.

  18. Madame Wong’s West. Talk about good times and awesome L.A. History.Philip if u had a hard time sneeking in I was pretty much fortunate. One of my uncles was a bar tender there and every event happening on the weekends I was there for free. Trust me I saw it all good and bad.But like u said Ms Wong had a strong attitude in reallity she was real nice 2 let me hangout at the age of 8 rock on

  19. interesting… There’s a movement right now to preserve the Senor Fish building aka the Atomic Cafe where the Go-Go’s and all those punk rock bands played in the day. It is set to be demolished for the new subway station being built underneath. Apparently, the Go-Go’s got their name from the Go-go chicken served at Atomic cafe.

    The building will not exist after ~2013/2014, but the history of it is planned to be integrated into the station design or somewhere in that vicinity.

  20. Hello all,

    Wow..great post and very interesting. I am doing some research (I’m an ethnomusicologist) on the role of Asian Americans in rock and roll history. If anyone can contact me with any information like , for example, “jackm’s” post about Graham Parker’s mention of Esther Wong in his song, “Maneuvers on the Up Escalator,” I would greatly appreciate it. If anyone else can point me in any other directions, perhaps of personal contact/knowledge with Asian Americans who were involved in rock and roll, whether through journalism, playing out/being musicians, owning clubs, DJing, producing, etc. I am sifting through Ben Fong-Torres’ collections at the Rock Hall archives in Ohio now.

    Lauren, you are Madame Wong’s granddaughter? Perhaps you’d like to get in touch with me for some discussion. jkinzer@uw.edu

    Thanks to all–any tips, advice, leads on research is much appreciated. The role of Asian Americans in rock and roll is not documented and needs to be!

    Thanks,
    Joe

  21. I worked the door at both Madame Wong’s clubs in the early 80’s. Started at West 2 – 3 nights a week, then was asked to do Chinatown the remaining nights. Saw many great bands there, including the Kats/Nu Kats/ Boy Next Door (same musicians & songs, they changed their name when they were unsuccessful being signed), Felony, Candy (& Candy’s side-project Trash, basically a pick-up band of local musicians doing covers of Partridge Family songs. CC DeVille often played with them).

    The Wong’s West elevator was legendary among West’s employees as a place to go snort coke. The dressing rooms there were big, much bigger than a club that size traditionally had.

    Only saw Esther in passing, though. My dealings were primarily with the club managers Alan & ???? (lapse of memory there, folks, sorry!).

    Good times!