Esther Wong, the unlikely "godmother of punk" who showcased such groups as Oingo Boingo at her Madame Wong's clubs in L. A.'s Chinatown and Santa Monica...

Share story

LOS ANGELES — Esther Wong, the unlikely “godmother of punk” who showcased such groups as Oingo Boingo at her Madame Wong’s clubs in L.A.’s Chinatown and Santa Monica in the late 1970s and 1980s, has died. She was 88.

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

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

“Before, I didn’t think I’d ever like rock music,” she told the Times in 1979 after her Chinatown restaurant began featuring punk and new-wave bands. “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 hosted Police, X, the Motels, 20/20, the Knack, the Know, the Textones, the Go-Gos, the Nu-Kats, the Bus Boys, Plane English, the Naughty Sweeties and more.

Mrs. 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, Mrs. Wong, a Shanghai native, was disparaged by some bands as a dragon lady. She once stopped a show until two members of the Ramones cleaned up what 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 girl singers, calling them “no good, always trouble.” And she regularly toured her establishment during performances, sniffing suspiciously for marijuana smoke.

Mrs. Wong could be jealous and vindictive, refusing to book or rebook any group that played her Chinatown rival 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 simply 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.”

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