Roman Mars [00:00:01] Vrbo offers whole vacation homes with the space to spend quality time with the people you love. In a Vrbo vacation home, a host doesn’t stay with you. So, when you rent a Vrbo, you get the whole upstairs, the whole downstairs, and the whole nap room–which is any room really if you try hard enough–where you can just be together because the most important thing in the world is quality time with your loved ones. Book your next day on the Vrbo app. Whether you’re a driverless car engineer or an augmented reality designer, Squarespace is the online platform to help you stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything. With Squarespace, you can collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers, display posts from your social profiles on your website, and even use the Analytics feature to gain insights to grow your business. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Even if you’ve never been to LA’s Chinatown, you’ve probably seen it. Although it doesn’t get as much attention as New York or San Francisco’s Chinatown, it is a regular shooting location for TV and film, so you may recognize it from movies like Rush Hour, Freaky Friday, or, you know, Chinatown.
Vivian Le [00:01:23] The most recognizable feature of LA’s Chinatown is its Central Plaza. It’s an outdoor pedestrian mall that’s almost overwhelmingly colorful.
Roman Mars [00:01:32] Producer Vivian Le.
Vivian Le [00:01:34] Brightly painted buildings are topped with sweeping pagoda style roofs and then accented with fluorescent neon lacing. For decades, Chinatown’s Central Plaza was a thriving tourist area. But by the late 1970s, it had fallen on hard times. The neighborhood’s neon lights still glowed over the shops and restaurants, but there was no one there to take it all in.
Paul Greenstein [00:01:56] Things had taken a significant nosedive. And there really wasn’t anyone on the street or going anywhere. And, you know, downtown was dead.
Vivian Le [00:02:05] It was this deserted Chinatown in 1978 that captured the interest of Paul Greenstein. Back then, Paul was a 20-something. He liked music and hoped to run his own club as a promoter. Instead, he did a lot of odd jobs around the city for money–you know, restoring jukeboxes, fixing toys, designing ads for a local cafe.
Roman Mars [00:02:24] Paul would sometimes spend nights wandering around Los Angeles with a friend. And one night, he found himself in Central Plaza. The streets of Chinatown were quiet, as always, but a sound caught his attention.
Paul Greenstein [00:02:38] We can hear this really wild party going on. So, we kind of gravitated to where all the noise is coming from. And there’s this place called Madame Wong’s.
Roman Mars [00:02:47] Madame Wong’s was a restaurant right in Central Plaza. If you enter through the famous East Gate, you’ll see an ornate two-story building with a curved pagoda style roof and an intricately detailed wooden balustrade lining the balcony.
Paul Greenstein [00:03:01] Obviously, you know, it was packed. And we’re looking around. There’s nobody here in Chinatown, but this place is packed. So, we go upstairs.
Vivian Le [00:03:08] Paul and his friend went up to the second story entrance of Madame Wong’s, expecting to have to squeeze his way through the door. But…
Paul Greenstein [00:03:16] There’s nobody. It was a recording. It was a recording of a party.
Vivian Le [00:03:23] According to Paul, the owners of the restaurant had been blasting party ambience through speakers to give off the illusion that it was packed with customers.
Paul Greenstein [00:03:32] So we went, “Oh God, that’s so funny. What a rip. This is great. We love it.” You know, because it was obviously a really lame trick. And we thought that was funny.
Vivian Le [00:03:42] Funny enough that Paul kept coming back to Madame Wong’s. He would ride his motorcycle over to Central Plaza to get lunch regularly and would find himself having long conversations with one of the owners of the restaurant, a man named George Wong.
Paul Greenstein [00:03:58] And I talked to George, and he’d tell me stories. Whether they were real or not, I never knew. But he said, “Oh God, you know, I was with the Flying Tigers in China. And I grew up in San Francisco. And I had a 1937 Indian just like yours. And I used to ride it up and down the hills.” And he’d just tell me stories. And I’d tell him stories, I have a beer, you know, and then I go back to work.
Vivian Le [00:04:18] Madame Wong’s was an island themed restaurant and club. They served tropical drinks, and at night Polynesian bands and dancers performed on a tiki themed stage decorated with seashells and dried grass.
Roman Mars [00:04:30] Like a lot of businesses in Chinatown, the restaurant wasn’t doing well. By 1978, the tiki craze that gripped the nation had officially burned out and Madame Wong’s would be lucky to get in a few dozen people during the evenings.
Vivian Le [00:04:43] But Paul had an idea–one that he hoped would put asses in the seats and Paul on the map.
Paul Greenstein [00:04:50] Why don’t I start a club in this restaurant that’s dead all the time?
Roman Mars [00:04:54] Paul wanted to turn Madame Wong’s into a hot new music venue–a venue he would book and promote.
Vivian Le [00:05:02] He had all sorts of ideas for the club. He imagined putting on rockabilly shows one night, then the next night, a jazz band, even sitar music. So, he asked George if he’d be willing to let him book some local musicians at Madame Wong’s.
Paul Greenstein [00:05:14] Basically, he said, “Let me talk to my wife.” Next time I came, I said, “Talk to your wife?” And he goes, “Yeah. She says, ‘No.'” I went, “Why?” He goes, “I don’t know. She just says, ‘no.'”
Vivian Le [00:05:23] The eponymous Madame Wong–George’s wife, Esther–passed away in 2005. But from every account that I’ve read or heard, she was a force to be reckoned with. Esther was born in 1917 in Shanghai, the daughter of a wealthy automobile importer. She was well-educated and well-traveled, but in 1949 was forced to flee China to escape the incoming communist regime, losing her high-end lifestyle. She made her home in Los Angeles and worked as a clerk for a shipping company for 20 years before opening Madame Wong’s with her husband, George.
Roman Mars [00:05:56] Esther Wong was not interested in working with Paul, but he was insistent.
Paul Greenstein [00:06:01] So I said, “You know, what’s your worst day?” She said, “Tuesday.” I said, “Give me Tuesdays.”
Vivian Le [00:06:06] After some convincing, Esther decided to let Paul experiment with their slowest days and book some local bands.
Roman Mars [00:06:12] What Esther probably wasn’t anticipating, though, was at this very time in LA, there was a rising musical scene just screaming for a new venue–punk.
Alice Bag [00:06:23] Well, I think at the beginning, promoters felt like punk is a new thing. And there were just a handful of places that welcomed punk with open arms in ’77.
Vivian Le [00:06:34] This is Alice Bag.
Alice Bag [00:06:36] I am an old school punk rocker, who started playing in a punk band in 1977.
Vivian Le [00:06:44] That band she was playing in was the trailblazing first wave punk band The Bags. In the late ’70s, punk had just begun to take root in Los Angeles. And Alice remembers a burgeoning scene where people like her fit in.
Alice Bag [00:06:58] There were a lot of bands that had women, queers, people of color. It was a very, very inclusive scene. And there were a lot of really unique voices. So, I think when you listen to LA punk, it is maybe a little bit quirkier.
Roman Mars [00:07:14] But the issue was that almost no one–not the biggest arena or the smallest clubs–wanted to host these local bands because, well…
Alice Bag [00:07:22] You know, from my experience, The Bags got a bad reputation for our fans being too aggressive and destroying things.
Vivian Le [00:07:31] Alice isn’t exaggerating about that reputation. Take, for example, in 1978, when The Bags played this very famous LA rock club called the Troubadour.
Alice Bag [00:07:41] It was later called “The Trashing of the Troubadour” because there was a lot of craziness.
Roman Mars [00:07:49] Rather than providing a dance floor, the Troubadour put down tables and chairs, expecting the audience to remain seated the whole night. And as soon as the show started, things began to go immediately awry.
Alice Bag [00:08:01] If you had a punk show at one of those places and you didn’t move the tables and create a dance floor, well, the punks were going to do it for you.
Vivian Le [00:08:10] Soon enough, the audience started hurling those tables and chairs across the room.
Alice Bag [00:08:14] You know, the furniture ended up in a pile, actually–like tables and chairs in a pile. And there’s actually video footage, I think, where you can see us playing on stage and you see, like, every now and then a chair flying across.
Vivian Le [00:08:32] There’s this photo that was taken after the chaos had subsided. Wooden chairs and table pieces are strewn into a frenzied pile, as if the audience was trying to barricade the place from a zombie apocalypse.
Alice Bag [00:08:45] But then, of course, The Bags were never allowed back at the Troubadour. And I think for a while punk bands in general were not allowed at the Troubadour. So, yes, unfortunately, these sort of things closed doors for us.
Vivian Le [00:09:00] It wasn’t just the Troubadour banning punk bands, it was most clubs. So, punks had to make do. They’d try sliding in through the back door of alternative unsuspecting venues. Some bands would book shows in abandoned synagogues, Ukrainian cultural centers, or the Performance Hall of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks.
Roman Mars [00:09:21] But as soon as the establishment figured out what was happening, they’d pull the plug or call the cops.
Vivian Le [00:09:27] The plan for Madame Wong’s was to book all types of music, not just punk rock. But by opening her club up to the scene, Esther Wong was about to form an uneasy alliance with the punks knocking at her door.
Roman Mars [00:09:41] Paul jumped in immediately and designed fliers and posters and stapled them to telephone poles all over town.
Vivian Le [00:09:47] After a few months of planning, Paul kicked off the weeknight shows in the fall of 1978 with a musician named Gary Valentine.
Paul Greenstein [00:09:54] You know, in the beginning it was very exciting. I mean, I wish I had kept a bottle of the adrenaline that I got every night out of that place.
Vivian Le [00:10:04] Madame Wong’s featured different types of music, but the punks were the ones who really turned up.
Jeff Spurrier [00:10:10] When she started, she was serving dinner until 9:00, I think.
Ann Summa [00:10:12] And then all of a sudden, instead of having, like, 20 people, there was, like, 300 people.
Vivian Le [00:10:17] This is Ann Summa and Jeff Spurrier. Ann was a prolific photographer of the LA punk scene, and Jeff was a freelance journalist. They were drawn in early and watched as Madame Wong’s crowds grew bigger and bigger. They said Central Plaza was a good vibe.
Ann Summa [00:10:31] It was super fun to go there. You could park really easily.
Jeff Spurrier [00:10:34] You could park really easily. And there was a big space out front where people could sprawl in the plaza, and you would not disturb neighbors.
Ann Summa [00:10:42] You could hang out.
Vivian Le [00:10:44] But aside from the cool vibe and convenient location, there were intangible qualities that lured young punks to Chinatown.
Ann Summa [00:10:50] Well, I certainly liked it better than Hollywood.
Jeff Spurrier [00:10:52] Yeah.
Ann Summa [00:10:54] I mean, it felt safer, but still you had, like, that element there to make it feel a little edgy.
Vivian Le [00:11:05] Chinatown was safer than a lot of other punk hangouts in LA. And sure, who’s going to argue with easy parking? But let’s not mince words here. A big part of the appeal for punks coming to Chinatown was this, quote, “edgy aesthetic.” And Chinatown seemed edgy mainly because it wasn’t rich, and it wasn’t white.
Roman Mars [00:11:25] Punks weren’t the first outsiders to be drawn to Chinatown. And that’s because it was designed to draw outsiders in.
William Gow [00:11:33] I would feel that what was going on in the punk scene is kind of similar to what happened in Chinatown for decades beforehand.
Vivian Le [00:11:39] This is William Gow, assistant professor of ethnic studies at Sacramento State University. He says that LA’s Chinatown is actually considered “New Chinatown” because the original neighborhood was torn down in the 1930s to make way for Union Station. When Chinese American business leaders rebuilt the community, they purposefully designed its central plaza with a, quote unquote, “exotic Eastern aesthetic” in order to lure Anglo-American tourists to Chinatown.
William Gow [00:12:06] What type of agency does a Chinese American merchant have but to find ways to take that perceived ethnic difference and to make it sellable? And so, the Chinese American merchants are trying to make Chinese American difference palatable to a larger white audience in a way that will empower them.
Vivian Le [00:12:23] So in the late 1970s, decades after New Chinatown drew in outsiders with its deliberate chinoiserie, Esther and George Wong did something similar. They capitalized on a new crowd by selling them an experience they couldn’t get anywhere else.
William Gow [00:12:37] If you have Chinese American businesses whose lifeblood are people outside of the community, you know, the punk scene is just going to be another aspect of that. It’s going to be a part of a broader history of a type of symbiotic relationship in which Chinese American businesses are catering to and sometimes profiting from folks that are coming into the community and spending money there.
Roman Mars [00:12:58] As with the case of Paul Greenstein and Esther Wong, this sticky symbiosis had its tensions. Paul and Esther had different ideas for the club. So after just a few months, Paul left Madame Wong’s and Esther was charting her club’s destiny.
Vivian Le [00:13:13] In order to keep bringing huge crowds to her restaurant, Esther began working with professional bookers.
Jonathan Daniel [00:13:19] People always thought she was, like, very tough. And, like, I definitely saw her be tough, but she wasn’t just tough. That wasn’t her thing. Like, otherwise, like, why am I at her house for Chinese New Year, you know?
Vivian Le [00:13:33] This is Jonathan Daniel, one of Esther’s music bookers. Today, he’s a co-founder of Crushed Music and works with artists like Green Day, Fall Out Boy, and Miley Cyrus. But back then, he was just a 19-year-old kid trying to learn about the music industry when he met Esther Wong.
Jonathan Daniel [00:13:49] I mean, I was so young that I don’t think I fully appreciated, like, where she came from. I just knew it was different.
Vivian Le [00:14:00] Jonathan respected Esther on a professional level. And on a personal level, he liked her. Sometimes she would even take him to the horse racing track with her because mama loved the ponies.
Jonathan Daniel [00:14:12] She was, like, incredible at betting on horses. And that was sort of a myth–how she had made the money was horse betting. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s an amazing story.
Vivian Le [00:14:23] And although Esther had a reputation for having a temper, Jonathan says she was easy to work with as long as the shows were full.
Jonathan Daniel [00:14:30] She gave me a lot of rope, especially for a kid. Every once in a while, she would go up and she would say, “Call Martha,” because she loved The Motels and she loved Martha Davis. The Plimsouls was another. And those bands had been very successful at the beginning. And so, she would always be like, “Call these bands.”
Roman Mars [00:14:51] Within a year of opening, Esther had turned Madame Wong’s into a prestige gig. It went from being the place that you played because there was nowhere else to go to being the place that you had to play.
Newscaster [00:15:02] We’re here in downtown Los Angeles, deep in the heart of Chinatown, at Madame Wong’s. Now, this is a club that’s given birth to many new rock acts. In fact, some people even say it’s the center of new talent on the West Coast.
Vivian Le [00:15:13] Madame Wong started booking not just local, unsigned LA acts, but big musicians from all over the world.
Jeff Spurrier [00:15:20] She worked hard–Madame Wong–and she made that place happen. And she made that scene happen.
Vivian Le [00:15:28] Journalist Jeff Spurrier again.
Jeff Spurrier [00:15:31] As a result, she had people like the police playing there. The B-52’s would come into town, and they played there. It was tiny. It was a tiny, tiny space, yet they played there because she was the place to play.
Vivian Le [00:15:46] Oingo Boingo played Madame Wong’s, The Go-Go’s, played Madame Wong’s. Even the Ramones.
Roman Mars [00:15:52] There’s actually a story that Esther pulled two members of the Ramones off the stage to make them clean up graffiti that they scrawled on the bathroom walls.
Vivian Le [00:16:01] Esther and George doubled down and opened up a second–even larger–location in Santa Monica called Madame Wong’s West. The Wongs were savvy business owners, who were strategic about how they ran their clubs. Since Madame Wong’s made most of its money through the bar, Jonathan said that George Wong would keep all sorts of detailed notes on the types of audiences that certain bands would bring in.
Jonathan Daniel [00:16:22] He would watch all the bands because the place was super small. And so, he would write things like, “Ice water drinkers,” meaning the crowd didn’t buy liquor. And he would write, “No draw,” if there weren’t enough people.
Vivian Le [00:16:38] I do like the idea of, like, George moneyballing it–keeping tabs.
Jonathan Daniel [00:16:42] Oh, definitely. Yeah. He was 100% Moneyball. Yes. He had a binder.
Roman Mars [00:16:49] George had his Moneyball books, but Esther was the figurehead of the clubs. She took it upon herself to listen to the stacks of tapes from interested bands and personally chose who got to perform on her stage.
Vivian Le [00:17:00] But at best, she tolerated the stuff being played at Madame Wong’s. In 1979, the same year the B-52s and The Police were playing on her stage, she told the LA Times, quote, “Before, I didn’t think I’d ever like rock music. Now I can turn it on, and it doesn’t bother me.”
Jonathan Daniel [00:17:21] I think she cared for the culture. I think she really liked when the club was crowded, and people were having a good time. I don’t think she, like, sat and listened to the music. That wasn’t her thing.
Roman Mars [00:17:37] She may not have been into it for the music itself, but there was something about the noisy rock lifestyle that Esther couldn’t resist. She liked the energy and took a lot of pride when a band would get signed out of her club.
Vivian Le [00:17:49] As Madame Wong’s reputation grew, so did Esther’s. Here she is being interviewed by the musician Bob Welch for a show called Hollywood Heartbeat.
Bob Welch [00:17:57] Behind the bar, we have the legendary Madame Wong. Esther Wong. Hi, Esther.
Esther Wong [00:18:02] Hi, Bob.
Bob Welch [00:18:03] What do you think about this music? Do you like it?
Esther Wong [00:18:07] Well, it’s different. It’s altogether different than anything else. Everybody has their different music, and I like that the most.
Bob Welch [00:18:16] Do you realize you’re a legend–becoming a legend–already a legend in Los Angeles?
Esther Wong [00:18:22] Well, I wouldn’t say that.
Bob Welch [00:18:25] Yes, you are!
Vivian Le [00:18:26] Soon, Esther had a new nickname.
Bob Welch [00:18:29] She was the godmother. They called her “The Godmother of Punk.”
Vivian Le [00:18:33] As a 62-year-old Chinese immigrant, Esther was getting all sorts of attention as the unlikely godmother of punk. And although it made for a catchy nickname, there are a lot of people in the scene who resented that moniker.
Alice Bag [00:18:45] Was she, like, really hosting punk? I’d say no.
Vivian Le [00:18:50] Alice Bag, again. Despite what the media had dubbed her, other punks like Alice knew that there was a different story there.
Alice Bag [00:18:58] I don’t think she deserves to be called anything that would frame her in terms of supporting punk. Maybe, you know, that could be adjusted to New Wave, but not punk.
Vivian Le [00:19:13] Around the time that Esther discovered rock in the late 1970s, punk music was changing, and a new style was splintering out into its own separate genre–new wave.
Roman Mars [00:19:25] New wave is a lot like punk if you added ironic lyrics, mainstream appeal, and a couple of synthesizers.
Vivian Le [00:19:31] To many punks, the distinction between the two genres meant everything. But to Esther Wong, these subtle musical differences weren’t enough for her to put up with the rowdy punk crowd. So as business began picking up, Esther pivoted and focused on booking new wave over punk. The new wavers tended to act a little more professionally and draw in slightly tamer audiences.
Roman Mars [00:19:54] My guess is Oingo Boingo probably didn’t tag Esther’s bathroom.
Alice Bag [00:19:58] I am pretty sure that our first show in Chinatown was at Madame Wong’s, and it was also our last show at Madame Wong’s.
Vivian Le [00:20:08] Alice says that the bags for a show at Madame Wong’s ended a lot like the trashing of the Troubadour. Things got out of hand, and a lot of furniture got damaged. Esther got tired of this sort of thing and began straight up banning a lot of punk bands.
Alice Bag [00:20:23] So punk had to find another venue. And lucky for us, the Hong Kong Cafe opened.
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Vivian Le [00:24:57] In 1979, less than a year after Esther and George began booking rock shows at Madame Wong’s, a different music promoter happened to find himself in Chinatown. His name was Kim Turner.
Kim Turner [00:25:09] Well, I was looking for a place from the minute I got here.
Vivian Le [00:25:12] Kim was fresh off the plane from DC and already looking for a space to run shows out of. One night he went to Madame Wong’s in Chinatown, and he thought that Central Plaza–with its neon lights and architecture–should have more than just one single rock club. It had the potential to be an entire music scene. So, as he was walking out of Madame Wong’s, he got an idea.
Kim Turner [00:25:33] I came down the stairs, and I looked across the way there. I saw the Hong Kong Low restaurant. I go, “Wow, that would be a perfect place for a band–for a nightclub.”
Vivian Le [00:25:42] Kim saw that literally steps away from Madame Wong’s, there just happened to be another struggling Chinese restaurant big enough to host the shows he had in mind. It was called Hong Kong Low.
Kim Turner [00:25:53] So I went over, and I talked to and introduced myself to Bill Hong. We sat down and talked.
Roman Mars [00:25:58] Bill Hong had been the owner of Hong Kong Low for decades and was a prominent and well-liked member of the Chinatown community. He was the executive secretary of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, where he helped new immigrants settle in Chinatown in the early ’70s. He also helped organize the annual Lunar New Year parade.
Vivian Le [00:26:14] What was his personality like? I’m just kind of curious.
Kim Turner [00:26:18] He was very– I don’t know… He ran a good business. Well, you saw in one picture of him. That’s right. And that was a good description of him.
Vivian Le [00:26:28] Kim was referring to a photo of Bill that he’d sent me before our interview. Bill’s holding up a lobster that he had just pulled out of Hong Kong Low’s live seafood tank. He’s wearing a bow tie and has this huge playful grin across his round face. He looks like a sweet, happy dad. No one I spoke with had a single bad thing to say about him.
Roman Mars [00:26:48] And luckily for him, Bill was open to turning Hong Kong Low into Chinatown’s second rock club.
Kim Turner [00:26:55] I said, “Well, let me get back with you. I’ll come back tomorrow.” He said, “Yeah, we’ll do this.”
Roman Mars [00:26:59] Hong Kong Low was a large two-story building. On the ground floor was the main dining area. And on the second floor was a private banquet room that Bill booked out for buffets and special events. The banquet room was mostly unused, and their idea was to convert that space into a new club called the Hong Kong Cafe.
Vivian Le [00:27:18] Kim brought on two other partners–a woman named Suzy Frank, who died in 2022, and a man named Barry Seidel.
Barry Seidel [00:27:25] We opened that club not knowing that we were going to be a premier punk club. We did not know that.
Vivian Le [00:27:32] This is Barry Seidel. Like Esther Wong, Barry did not originally set out to be a champion for punk music. But he and Kim had overheard the angry grumblings of punk bands who had been booted out of Madame Wong’s, and they saw an opportunity.
Barry Seidel [00:27:45] As soon as we opened, we realized that we had an enemy next door that was threatening all the bands. So, then we started to become aware of–Oh God–so many punk bands that were not being used. People were afraid of them. And we figured, “What the hell? We could really do something with these bands if we can get by with it–if we can handle it.”
Vivian Le [00:28:11] Barry and Kim built a stage from scratch and published a press release for the official June 5th, 1979, opening of the brand-new Hong Kong Cafe. It advertised the best in rock, live seafood, and live entertainment.
Roman Mars [00:28:25] And every choice that Madame Wong’s made, the guys at the Hong Kong purposely went the other direction. Esther made Madame Wong’s 21 and up, so the Hong Kong was all ages. If Madame Wong’s was going to cast out the unruly punk bands, the Hong Kong would take them in.
Vivian Le [00:28:41] Even if they were trouble.
Barry Seidel [00:28:43] The first night that we were running a big punk show, everybody said, “Watch out for Black Randy.” I said, “What’s that?”
Roman Mars [00:28:53] They were referring to Black Randy and the MetroSquad.
Barry Seidel [00:28:56] You know, I’m new in LA here, you know? They said, “Well, just watch out for Black Randy. He’s a toilet breaker.” I said, “What’s the toilet breaker?”
Roman Mars [00:29:04] That one actually turned out to be pretty self-explanatory.
Barry Seidel [00:29:06] So the night’s over, the toilets broken, water all over the place. So that was one of the first lessons that we had. And if you’re listening, Randy, we’re on to you.
Vivian Le [00:29:23] The shows took a toll on the Hong Kong Cafe, but Barry, Kim, and Bill eventually worked out a deal that any damage done to the club would be taken out of the band’s cut of the night.
Ken Chan [00:29:33] Bill was kind of a happy go lucky guy. When he was picking up bottles, you know, in the Plaza, he always had a smile. He always had a little chuckle. It’s kind of, like, maybe a cost of doing business.
Vivian Le [00:29:45] This is Ken Chan. His family owns Phoenix Bakery, which is a business that’s been in Chinatown for over 80 years. He says that in the beginning, both Esther and Bill got some pushback from the local community because of some vandalism. But Esther and Bill stuck up for the shows.
Ken Chan [00:30:01] There was some vandalism, and there was some trash. You know, every night, Bill would go out there with a broom and he started sweeping up stuff. Bill would tell me, “You know, I got to keep the place up and running. I gotta pay my rent. I gotta pay my staff.”
Vivian Le [00:30:15] The shows and audiences could get chaotic, but it was all worth it to draw bigger crowds into Central Plaza. Bigger crowds meant more money spent at the bar and in the restaurant, which went straight to Bill.
Kim Turner [00:30:26] We were both helping each other out. He was giving us a place to do our business, and he was doing well with all the people, you know, coming in. And not only would they go down to eat dinner downstairs, but then they would come upstairs and drink too and watch the bands.
Roman Mars [00:30:42] And although it was mainly a business decision for Bill, the Hong Kong Cafe ended up becoming hugely important to the punk scene.
Alice Bag [00:30:50] It gave a forum to people that might have a difficult time finding a place to perform.
Vivian Le [00:30:56] Here’s Alice Bag, again. She appreciated that the Hong Kong was a place where artistic expression could run rampant. People like her had the freedom to get weird and experimental on stage.
Alice Bag [00:31:08] I just wanted to say that one of the most impactful shows that I saw at the Hong Kong Cafe was Johanna Went.
Barry Seidel [00:31:15] Have you ever heard of Johanna Went?
Vivian Le [00:31:17] Here’s Barry, again. He remembers the show very well.
Barry Seidel [00:31:21] Yeah. Johanna came to me, and she wanted to play the Hong Kong. Well, she’s a performance artist, and she does weird stuff. So, I said, “What do you do?” And as far as I can remember, word for word, she said, “Well, first I cover the stage with a plastic sheet. And there’s a lot of blood, and it’s kind of messy, but I clean up afterwards.”
Vivian Le [00:31:48] You can watch some of Johanna Went’s work online. And to be honest, it will probably fuck you up a little bit. But to her credit, she did clean up afterwards.
Alice Bag [00:31:58] You know, that’s something that made the Hong Kong Cafe really unique–that it would host a performance artist that was known for, like, being a little bit out of control, for using stuff that would get on the furniture, get on the floor, get on the customers. And they weren’t afraid of that.
Roman Mars [00:32:17] And the blood-soaked shows were blowing up. Kids who were turned away at the door were scaling the roof and breaking in through the air conditioning ducts.
Vivian Le [00:32:26] Kim Turner told me that one time a person was so desperate to get into a show that he fell through the vent and nearly impaled himself on the drummer’s high hat. And it wasn’t just punks. All sorts of people heard the buzz around the Hong Kong Cafe and started showing up in Central Plaza.
Barry Seidel [00:32:43] John Belushi used to come in all the time. And also, Donna Summer became a friend of mine. She’s very small, and she loved the Hong Kong Cafe! And she would come in, and I’d say, “Donna. You must wear this hat and go sit in that corner.” Because if they knew that was Donna Summer, they would have ripped her apart. The disco queen, you know?
Roman Mars [00:33:09] Night after night, punk bands kept the second floor of Hong Kong Low’s packed, maybe even too packed.
Barry Seidel [00:33:15] The place wasn’t that big. I think the legal crowd in there was only 250. And we would put maybe 400 people in there. And downstairs in the restaurant, I used to get scared because you could look up at the ceiling. And when there was, like, 400 people in there jumping around and doing the mosh pit and everything else going on, you could see the ceiling just kind of bouncing up and down. It’s kind of scary. We got busted by the fire department many times for overcrowding. Madame Wong probably called them.
Roman Mars [00:33:51] One person who was not a fan of the Hong Kong’s chaotic, punk-loving vibe was Esther Wong.
Kim Turner [00:33:57] She would be sitting because both clubs were on the second level.
Vivian Le [00:34:01] This is Kim Turner again, Barry’s other partner at the Hong Kong.
Kim Turner [00:34:05] And you can see her, behind her bars, looking with her binoculars into our club and seeing what was going on.
Roman Mars [00:34:14] In the beginning, Esther was actually quoted in the LA Times welcoming the competition in Chinatown. But that attitude quickly changed.
Vivian Le [00:34:22] She didn’t talk very openly about why she didn’t like the Hong Kong Cafe. So, it was assumed that it was just sheer territorialism on her part. But it went deeper than that.
Jonathan Daniel [00:34:32] I think she felt like there was a rivalry and, like, the Hong Kong Cafe’s culture was disrespectful to her.
Vivian Le [00:34:40] As far as I know, Esther didn’t have a problem with Bill Hong, but she was not a fan of Barry and Kim. It may have all started when Barry took out an ad in the weekly promoting the opening of the Hong Kong Cafe. Barry took a swipe at Madame Wong’s by writing, “You’ve tried the first and finest, now try the biggest and the best.”
Barry Seidel [00:34:59] I thought it was very funny. She did not like that stuff at all.
Roman Mars [00:35:03] It then snowballed when Esther’s then-promoter instituted a three-to-four-week cooling period for bands that played the Hong Kong. To them, it just made business sense that they wouldn’t want to book a band that had just played the venue 30 yards away the night before.
Vivian Le [00:35:19] But most people interpreted this as a blanket ban on any band that played the Hong Kong Cafe. This policy, along with the fact that Esther stopped booking punk bands, gave her a reputation for being vindictive. It also drew a line in the sand in Central Plaza. On one side of the courtyard was Esther Wong in her skinny tie, wearing new wave bands. And on the other was the Hong Kong and the punks.
Alice Bag [00:35:43] Yeah. I mean, they were like, steps away from each other, like kitty corner. Very, very, very close. So, you can actually see, like, you know, the new wave audience lined up for a show at Madame Wong’s and the punk rock audience lined up at the Hong Kong Cafe.
Vivian Le [00:36:00] The LA press got wind of this tension in Chinatown and stoked the flames of the feud. The local media gave the whole clash an unfortunate nickname.
Barry Seidel [00:36:09] I guess we’re going to get into the Wonton Wars now. I might as well, right?
Vivian Le [00:36:14] Yeah, the “Wonton Wars.” It was also dubbed the “Chinatown Syndrome,” and then–thank God–later just referred to as the “Chinatown Punk Wars.”
Roman Mars [00:36:23] Barry openly admits that the war between the Hong Kong and Madame Wong’s was ginned up by the media. The tall tale of these two warring restaurants was media gold. But the press also recast the godmother of punk into a new role because, like every good story, the Chinatown Punk Wars had to have good guys and bad guys.
Vivian Le [00:36:42] And the villain was an obvious choice.
Barry Seidel [00:36:46] So when the press would hear something that she would say or complain about–which was a lot of things, I guess–they would come running in, they would take her story, then they’d come to me. And I, of course, was the nice guy from New York that everybody loved. And anybody can play the Hong Kong, you know.
Vivian Le [00:37:05] He says that he remembers journalists telling him that when they came to do stories about the Hong Kong at the time, they would photograph him in flattering ways. They’d stage him with flowers and potted plants to make him look endearing, like a harmless woodland creature. But on the flipside, with Esther…
Barry Seidel [00:37:21] They would shoot her from the ground up. They told me that that’s what they would do because it made her look, like, evil.
Roman Mars [00:37:30] The Chinatown Punk Wars generated a lot of attention for the Hong Kong Cafe. And Barry says at times he even took advantage of this dynamic.
Barry Seidel [00:37:39] Whenever Madame Wong was not complaining, it was not good for business. So, we would do something to make her complain. And then we would just, “I didn’t know! I didn’t do it! I don’t know what she’s talking about!”
Vivian Le [00:37:52] The most infamous example of this was an elaborate prank called the “Trojan Tape.”
Roman Mars [00:37:57] The story involved a musician named Dwight Twilley, who was releasing a new album. At the time, clubs like Madame Wong’s had sound guys who played cassettes over the speakers in between musical acts, so the audience would have something to listen to. And with Dwight Twilley’s new album coming out that week, Berry got an idea.
Barry Seidel [00:38:14] And what we did is I got my friend Kenny, who does a little disc jockey kind of thing as a joke all the time. So, I said, “Come on, Kenny, listen. We’re going to get the Dwight Twilley tape and very carefully open the cellophane, open the tape, and then you go to, like, the second cut.”
Vivian Le [00:38:35] A few minutes into the cassette, Barry and his friend recorded a secret message, resealed the tape, and then sent it to Esther, along with a forged note from Twilley.
Roman Mars [00:38:45] Sure enough, thinking that it was a promotional gift, Esther’s sound person played the cassette in the club that night. And halfway through track two, the music cut out and a voice said…
Barry Seidel [00:38:54] “Come on over to the Hong Kong! It’s the best place in Chinatown! Just a couple of hops and jumps away from you–from where you are.” Anyway, I had a lot of fun with that. So did the press. They liked it.
Roman Mars [00:39:07] But Esther Wong did not. According to witnesses that night, Esther was fuming and lost it in front of the entire club.
Vivian Le [00:39:15] Barry had lots of stories like the Trojan Tape. As you could tell, he had a lot of fun with the Chinatown Punk Wars. Unlike Esther, he always came out on the other side unscathed.
Barry Seidel [00:39:27] Madame Wong was the nasty club owner. And Barry Seidel and Kim–we were the nice guys from the East Coast that didn’t want to hurt anybody. We just wanted to be good guys, you know? And that’s the way it played. But some of the things we did to her behind the scenes to make her keep going– Because she was serious. We knew it was funny. She did not.
Roman Mars [00:39:56] It wasn’t funny to Esther because she and Barry were very different people with very different stakes. Esther wasn’t some young, white dude who was in it for a good time. She was a 62-year-old immigrant entrepreneur, who was constantly being criticized for the way she ran her business.
Vivian Le [00:40:12] In an article from 1979, Esther said of Barry and Kim, quote, “They can go to hell. They’re the lowest of the low. I don’t want them here. I don’t care what they say. They’re liars. I hate them,” end quote. If you just went off the context of that article, she sounded unhinged. But this was a few months after the Trojan Tape incident. And after hearing some of the things Barry put her through, I get why she seemed so angry. This was her restaurant and her livelihood.
Roman Mars [00:40:41] Her frustration was justified. But in the press and in the wider music scene, she started to earn a very specific kind of reputation.
Jonathan Daniel [00:40:48] I think it was a stereotype. Like, “Dragon Lady” they used to call her.
Vivian Le [00:40:52] Jonathan Daniel, Madame Wong’s booker, again.
Jonathan Daniel [00:40:55] People didn’t realize how hard it was to be a woman, you know, let alone, like, not a white woman, doing that. Like, it’s insane that she did that and built it up. But people didn’t realize that. All the things that were her strengths became, like, the things that people would pick on as a stereotype.
Vivian Le [00:41:14] Because she had the audacity to make her own business decisions and stand up for herself, Esther went from being called “The Godmother of Punk” to “The Dragon Lady.”
Alice Bag [00:41:23] I repeated that without really thinking about what it meant.
Vivian Le [00:41:28] Alice Bag, again.
Alice Bag [00:41:29] And now I realize that that is a racist term. So, I want to apologize for my ignorance and for using a term like that. I think it’s easy to pick on people who you might see as, like, having less power than other people. So, if this was a club on the West Side and it was run by an affluent, white man, you might just think, “Oh, that’s a business decision.”
Roman Mars [00:42:04] Punk music and Chinatown burned bright, but it burned fast. Within a few years, the genre had evolved. And by 1981, bands like The Bags, The Alley Cats, and the Dils–who helped define the sound of first wave LA punk–had drifted out of the scene.
Vivian Le [00:42:20] Punk wasn’t dying, but it was changing. The music was being overtaken by hardcore bands and audiences. It was faster, harder, more aggressive, and tended to bring in a very different crowd.
Alice Bag [00:42:35] Yeah, I think we started seeing, like, a skinhead ethos and also, like, white, male jocks getting into the slam pit and kind of taking it to a place where it wasn’t fun. The women that used to be at the front of the stage suddenly felt uncomfortable being there because they were going to get hurt.
Vivian Le [00:43:05] The party was over for the Hong Kong Cafe as well. Despite its popularity, they closed down shop in 1981 after just a year and a half.
Barry Seidel [00:43:15] There wasn’t much money at all. And I just got to a point… Kim actually said to me, “I’d like to close after New Year’s if that’s okay.” I said, “It’s okay with me.”
Vivian Le [00:43:26] The Hong Kong Cafe was the last time either Barry or Kim worked in the music industry in any meaningful way.
Roman Mars [00:43:34] Esther stuck it out with Madame Wong’s longer, and the party raged on for a few more years. Her clubs managed to survive punk and the introduction of MTV in the early 1980s. But after a while, the hassle just wasn’t worth it anymore.
Vivian Le [00:43:48] The improbable alliance that Esther formed with her rock-seeking customers in Chinatown had come apart. In 1986, she told the LA Times, quote, “The kids that come here now–they drive me crazy. They come here and they act like spoiled brats. Some of them plugged up my toilets, and one man set fire to some paper towels and set off our sprinkler system, flooding the whole basement. It’s got me pretty discouraged.”
Roman Mars [00:44:12] After that fire in 1986, Esther announced that she was closing Madame Wong’s East in Chinatown. It’s not clear if she regretted the experience, but when she was asked what she would miss most, she concluded in her very straightforward way, “I’ll miss the bands I liked, but I don’t think I’ll miss anything else. Not anymore.”
Vivian Le [00:44:33] In 1991, after featuring bands like R.E.M., Guns N’ Roses, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Madame Wong’s West closed its doors as well. By this time, Esther was well into her 70s, and the music landscape was a completely different place.
Roman Mars [00:44:51] Esther Wong died from emphysema in 2005 at the age of 88. Even though her legacy was disputed over the years, the LA Times eulogized her as the Godmother of Punk.
Ken Chan [00:45:03] You know, hand it to them and Madame Wong. You know, they thought of something new. They brought another crowd in.
Vivian Le [00:45:08] This is Ken Chan from Phoenix Bakery, again. Ken gets why the punk thing fascinated so many people, but he also kind of casually waves off this moment in the neighborhood’s history. He’s seen these fads come and go over the years.
Ken Chan [00:45:22] I think the punk rock was an era–it was a time–but it brought people to Chinatown. I think they maybe saw something on Chinese architecture. They saw some knickknacks. But they got a little something in their memory bank. Chinatown may have been deserted, it may have been closed, but, you know, we had a good time.
Vivian Le [00:45:43] These two rock clubs meant so much to people in the punk scene. But to someone like Ken, they’re just a couple of stops on a walking tour of Central Plaza. These days, there are just too many bigger things to worry about. The neighborhood moved on. And after the punks left, the art galleries moved in, then the hipster restaurants, and then the developers. Punk ended up just being a phase that–like so many people–Chinatown eventually grew out of.
Roman Mars [00:46:29] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Vivian Le. Edited by Kelly Prime. Original music by Swan Real with Mya Byrne on guitar. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Jayson De Leon, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to Jan Lin, Pamela Goodchild, Chip Kinman, and Ron Louie whose interviews did not make it into the piece but were super helpful to the story. And an extra special thanks to Lawrence Smith the producer of Hollywood Heartbeat. Not only did he allow us to use that very rare interview audio of Esther Wong, he shipped Viv the episode DVD from across the country. Above and beyond. 99% Invisible is part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.
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This episode is reported and told amazingly – Vivian, I don’t have a favorite on staff, but if I did, it might be you.
But as with so many true-to-the-soul things in 99PI pieces, the ending attributions/outros have been one of my favorite extras since you all took up residence with SiriusXM and Stitcher. And this episode’s outro was PERFECTION. I don’t know whose idea it was, but kudos x1000, it made me laugh and yawp out loud, and it is (to me) representative of what’s at the heart of your collective personalities, and an indicator that you are all people I would want to hang out with if I knew you IRL.
I love your show – Roman, bless you for seeing things through all these years.
What’s the closing credit song on here? Great episode, but that song sounds unreal. 46:50 is the time stamp. The tune at 48:40 as well? What do we have?
Thanks for giving proper credit to the people who actually got that scene started. The other articles I’ve read about the Chinatown make it sound as though Esther Wong discovered punk rock herself.