Esther Wong (August 13, 1917 – August 14, 2005) was a Chinese-American restaurant owner and music promoter, called the “Godmother of Punk” in Los Angeles, California.
She was born in Shanghai, China, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1949.
After fierce initial resistance, she became a punk rock and new wave music promoter. She got started in the early 1970s as the owner of Madame Wong’s, a Los Angeles Chinatown restaurant with a floorshow—originally at 949 Sun Mun Way, located in the original 1938 Rice Bowl restaurant. Polynesian dance acts weren’t attracting customers, yet when Paul Greenstein, a Los Angeles “bum vivant,” first approached her husband George about booking bands, she declined. Greenstein’s persistence, and the fact that he had already given the nearby “Atomic Cafe” a new lease on life (cross-pollination between owners’ children worked the magic), caused her to agree to a trial run in Fall of 1978. Initially, under Greenstein, a showcase for unsigned, unbookable punk-bands, Madame Wong’s was one of few places such bands could perform. With the exit of Greenstein, Madame Wong’s morphed into a power-pop palace with bookings more influenced by a now-interested Wong. Notable bands that she showcased included a “who’s who” of rock music, including The Knack, The Police, The Motels, Fishbone, The Go-Go’s, X, The Alley Cats, The Bangs, Oingo Boingo, Naughty Sweeties, Los Illegals, Candy, Guns N’ Roses, Black Flag, No Mercy, Beowülf, Excel, Daniel Amos, Fear, Bad Actor, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Twisters, and The Ramones. Eventually this led to her nickname, the “Godmother of Punk.”
She closed the original “Madame Wong’s” after a fire in 1985 and “Madame Wong’s West”, 2900 Wilshire, in Santa Monica, California in 1991.
The original “Madame Wong’s” unofficially reopened for a brief period in 2009/2010, when Ben Kramer, Stuart Friedel, and Rob Cudd, who were living in an apartment that now occupies the premises, hosted concerts in their living room, using the name Madame Wong’s in homage to the original venue. Acts that year included Devendra Banhart, Vampire Weekend’s secret 2009 Halloween show, The Answering Machine, Wavves, Smith Westerns, Jounce, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, Backbiter, Salvador Santana, The Growlers, Harlem, and others.
Esther Wong died from emphysema and lung cancer on August 14, 2005 in Los Angeles, and was survived by her second husband, Harry Wong, two children, Frank Wong and Melinda Braun, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
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