LOCAL L.A. Now

Benefit concert series is an homage to Chinatown's punk rock past

This post has been corrected. See item below.

On a Tuesday night in October 1978, a struggling restaurant in Chinatown decided to try some new music.

Madame Wong’s was having trouble finding customers with a regular Polynesian dance floor show. So proprietor Esther Wong, with some convincing, gave the stage to two punk rock bands.

Guitars wailed. Drums crashed. Eggrolls were served. A new venue for Los Angeles punk rock was born.

The late 1970s were a golden time for punk rock in Southern California, but traditional music venues looked down on the budding genre. Restaurants like Madame Wong's and later Hong Kong Cafe gave the music a home and turned Chinatown into a punk destination. They hosted early shows of bands like the Ramones, Oingo Boingo, the Police and Guns N' Roses.

A new concert series will bring punk rockers back to Chinatown for an afternoon to raise money for music education. “Save Music in Chinatown” will hold its second show on Sunday to raise money for the struggling music program at Castelar Elementary School in Chinatown. This time the venue is Human Resources, one of the many art galleries that have taken root in Chinatown over the last few years.

“There's this tradition of punk rock here, and there's a thriving art gallery scene," organizer Martin Wong said. "Neither group really hangs out in Chinatown, but I knew they would help out if they could,” Wong said.

At Castelar Elementary, up to 450 kids get weekly music lessons and learn to play violin and cello. But this may be the program’s last year because of budget cuts. Principal Cheuk Choi said the music lessons helped students join choirs, glee clubs and other activities later in life. Some of the children have been talented enough to earn scholarships for lessons at the prestigious Colburn School of Music in downtown Los Angeles. But without the music program, their chances are slim.

“There are really not many opportunities to learn music for kids growing up in Chinatown,” Choi said.

Chinatown used to be a place that nurtured music, some musicians say. Mike Magrann, guitarist and lead singer for the Cerritos-based punk band Channel Three, said that places like Madame Wong's and Hong Kong Cafe breathed life into a growing scene.

“Troubadour and Whiskey [A Go-Go] would look at punk rockers and see violence and destruction. So we found these alternative venues, restaurants, VFWs, anything,” Magrann said.

Wong never really liked rock music. But she saw the crowds and became one of the genre’s most ardent promoters. She leaned toward power pop acts, while Hong Kong Cafe hosted the more hardcore punk bands, the ones Wong had lost patience with. The clubs faced each other in Chinatown’s Central Plaza, jostling for acclaim and musical acts, a battle of skinny ties and nose rings.

Magrann’s band played at Madame Wong’s in the '80s, and he says Wong helped bring order to the chaos.

“She'd ask you, are you going to bring in customers today, and you'd say yes," Magrann said. "You’d ask for a case of beer and she’d tell you to get the hell out of the kitchen.”

Hong Kong Cafe closed in 1981 and became a gift shop. Madame Wong's closed in 1985 and has been converted to a loft residence. Esther Wong died in 2005. The musicians have changed, too. 

“These are the same people you were trying to buy beer in downtown L.A. with as a kid," Magrann said. "Now they’re 50 years old and holding babies, trying to contribute to something instead of trying to destroy it.”

The concert takes place at 3 p.m. at the Human Resources art gallery in Chinatown. Tickets are 12$ and children under 12 get in free.

[For the record: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the principal of Castelar Elementary as Cheuk Kwok. His name is Cheuk Choi.]

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frank.shyong@latimes.com

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