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Punk promoter Esther Wong dies

‘Godmother of punk’ helped X, the Go-Gos and Oingo Boingo rise to fame
/ Source: The Associated Press

Esther Wong, who booked a who’s who of punk rock and new wave bands at her popular Madame Wong’s clubs in the 1970s and ’80s, has died. She was 88.

She died Sunday at her Los Angeles home, her daughter, Melinda Braun, said Wednesday. She had suffered from emphysema and cancer.

Wong, who earned the nickname the “godmother of punk,” showcased such popular groups as the Police, X, the Go-Gos, Oingo Boingo, the Motels, the Knack, the Textones and Plane English early in their careers, giving many groups their first major break.

The native of China originally booked Polynesian bands to play at her restaurant, but when hardly anyone showed up to hear them she decided to take a chance on rock acts. Almost overnight in 1978, hundreds of people began showing up at her Chinatown restaurant to hear the new sounds, and she opened a Madame Wong’s West in Santa Monica that same year.

“Before, I didn’t think I’d ever like rock music,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1979. “Now I can turn it on, and it doesn’t bother me.”

As her clubs flourished, Wong quickly became known as a no-nonsense proprietor. She once halted a performance by the Ramones until the band members left the stage and cleaned up the graffiti they had put on a bathroom wall. She rarely booked female singers, calling them “no good, always trouble,” and she was known to go into the audience to try to sniff out marijuana smokers.

“She would always take any problem or situation head-on, she was not afraid of anyone,” her daughter told The Associated Press.

Wong auditioned performers by listening to their tapes, often while driving in her car, until she said her habit of flinging bad music out the window nearly got her in trouble.

“One day I almost hit the highway patrol car that was right next to me,” she told the Times in 1980.

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Born and educated in Shanghai, Wong traveled the world as a child with her father, who was an importer.

She moved to Los Angeles in 1949 when the Chinese government fell to the communists, working for two decades at a shipping company before opening her restaurant.

She closed the original Madame Wong’s in 1985 and Madame Wong’s West in 1991.

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