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Obituaries

Esther Wong, 88; 'Godmother of Punk' Whose Venues Showcased Pop, Rock Acts in '70s, '80s

August 17, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Esther Wong, the unlikely "godmother of punk" who showcased such groups as Oingo Boingo at her Madame Wong's clubs in Chinatown and Santa Monica in the late 1970s and '80s, has died. She was 88.

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

At first slow to accept punk rock, new wave and other 1970s music, the colorful and sometimes controversial Wong came to be one its most ardent patrons in Los Angeles.

Her Madame Wong's restaurant on Sun Mun Way in Chinatown, which she opened in 1970 with her now-deceased first husband, George Wong, originally featured Polynesian bands. But when that music attracted smaller and smaller crowds, she was persuaded in 1978 to book rock musicians for one month.

The switch immediately increased her nightly crowd from as few as a dozen 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 presented the 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 others.

She opened the Santa Monica club, she once told The 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.

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 Highway Patrol car that was right next to me."

A no-nonsense businesswoman, Wong was disparaged by some bands for her temper. She once stopped a show until two members of the Ramones cleaned up graffiti they had 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 female singers, calling them "no good, always trouble." And she regularly patrolled her establishment during performances, sniffing for marijuana smoke.

Wong could be jealous and vindictive -- refusing to book or rebook any group that played at a rival Chinatown 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 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 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, 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.

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

A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday at Douglass & Zook Mortuary Colonial Chapel, 600 E. Foothill Blvd., Monrovia.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be sent to the Cedars-Sinai Hospice Fund, 200 N. Robertson Blvd., Suite 102, Beverly Hills, CA 90211.

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