By Jana Monji
Los Angeles Chinatown isn’t just part of an ethnic community’s history and a colorful tourist trap. Once upon a time, not so long ago, it was the battleground for two emerging musical genres, earning the Shanghai-born Esther Wong the title: “Godmother of Punk.”
Giving tribute to this past, The Linda Lindas helped KCET and PBS SoCal celebrate Artbound‘s 14th Season which opens Wednesday, October 4th with the documentary Chinatown Punk Wars. On Friday, Sept. 22 over 1,000 people attended the KCET and PBS SoCal’s free outdoor screening event produced in association with Great Performances and the LAist. The event included a special preview screening of the documentary, a panel and a concert headed by The Linda Lindas.
The Linda Lindas are a Los Angeles-based all-woman punk rock band comprised of Chinese American Eloise Wong (bass, guitar and vocals), Salvadoran American Bela Salazar (Guitar and vocals), Wong’s cousins Lucia de la Garza (guitar and vocals) and Mila de la Garza (drum and vocals), who are the daughters of music producer Carlos de la Garza (with Eloise’s aunt, Angelyn Wong).
You don’t have to love punk to find some common ground here. The two Chinatown figures behind this musical war, Esther Wong and Bill Hong, weren’t really into that music scene. In the late 1970s, promoter Paul Greenstein convinced Esther Wong (1917-2005) to allow punk bands to perform on the slowest nights at Madame Wong’s: Tuesdays.
Wong eventually found punk bands and their fans too destructive. Cutting out Greenstein, Wong took over band scheduling and switched to New Wave bands which she found were more professional and their crowds more respectful of the restaurant environment. That decision was an opening for promoter Barry Seidel and Hong Kong owner Bill Hong at the Hong Kong Cafe just across from Madame Wong’s on Central Plaza.
Wong and Hong’s business plan also differed in other ways. Wong didn’t want girl bands and enforced a 21 and up restriction while Hong offered a venue for all ages. The rival music promotions also meant that LA Chinatown’s Central Plaza became a hang out for fans of these groups.
While you might not recognize names like The Young Adults, The Zippers, The Alley Cats, you likely have heard of the Dead Kennedy’s and The Police. The Police, including Sting, played at Madame Wong’s. Both Madame Wong’s (which expanded into the Westside with the now defunct Madame Wong West) and the Hong Kong Cafe are memories, having closed. The music scene has changed, but the legacy of this war survives in bands like The Linda Lindas.
In the panel moderated by LAist Studios’ Antonia Cereijido and included The Linda Lindas, punk rock trailblazer Mexican American Alice Bag of The Bags–one of the first punk rock bands in Los Angeles, and Jessica Schwartz who as an assistant professor of musicology at UCLA teaches the course “Music History 13: Punk: Music, History, Sub/culture” at UCLA.
When asked about Madame Wong, Bag (Alicia Armendariz) issued an apology, saying, “My feelings toward Madame Wong definitely have changed over the years. I never met her in person.” Bag recalled, “She was described to me as a dragon lady and I want to take this opportunity to apologize to all of you. I am very ashamed to have been somebody who repeated that. I also described her as a dragon lady despite the fact that I had never met her.”
=In addition, Bag noted, “I understand now that what she was trying to do was protect her club. We were a little rowdy; we were young.”
While The Linda Lindas acknowledged the pioneers on the Los Angeles scene, Lucia de la Garza noted, “We didn’t start out in the band thinking that we were going to play shows around the world, but we do…That definitely shows that punk is powerful.”
Amy Poehler had The Linda Lindas record a song for the 2021 film she directed “MOXIE!” (Big Mouth and Rebel Girl) and the group also wrote a song Claudia Kishi for the 2020 Netflix documentary short, The Claudia Kishi Club, directed by Sue Ding.
Eloise Wong said, “Punk isn’t just exciting because there were so many cool bands at the time that [the film] is talking about. Punk is here and that’s what’s exciting about it.”
After the panel, Alice Bag got on stage to perform with The Linda Lindas at the end of the evening of coolness. It’s too bad that neither Esther Wong nor Bill Hong lived long enough to be part of the documentary or this event.
Chinatown Punk Wars isn’t the only episode that looks at Asian American history in the Los Angeles arts scene during Artbound’s 14th season. The third episode, L.A. Rebellion: A Cinematic Movement, shows how following the Watts uprising in 1965, UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television initiated affirmative action policies to increase the enrollment of Black, Asian, Chicano and Native American students in the film program.
While this group did graduate “into a desert” while “White kids graduated into an industry,” a collaborative documentary short of the 29 August 1970 Chicano Moratorium Against the War in Vietnam, Requiem-29, was inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2021.
Another thing that came out of that initiative was the Los Angeles-based Visual Communications Media organization, a non-profit with a mission “to develop and support the voices of Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers.” Founded in 1970 by Duane Kubo, Robert Nakamura, Alan Ohashi, and Eddie Wong, VC premiered the first ever full length Asian American film in 1980: Hito Hata: Raise the Banner and has since 1983 presented the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Eddie Wong is one of the people interviewed in the L.A. Rebellion documentary.
Episode Six, East West Players: A Home on Stage, covers the 58-year history of “the longest-running ethnic theater in the United States.” Interviewees include George Takei, John Cho, Daniel Dae Kim, James Hong and David Henry Hwang.
Frank Chin is discussed, but not his contentious rants against Hwang. The organization served as a place to voice the stories of the AAPI community as well as provide opportunities for AAPI actors to perform roles they would never be considered for, including ones that would go to other actors performing in yellow face or roles usually cast with White people (e.g. the 1994 production of Sweeney Todd or the upcoming production of Spring Awakening which opens on 26 October 2023) in a time before multicultural casting helped bring diversity to the stage.
Esther Kim Lee, Professor of Theater Studies, International Comparative Studies, and History and the Director of Asian American & Diaspora Studies at Duke University. recalls an incident involving founding member, Oscar-nominated Mako (1933-2006). According to Lee, Mako auditioned for a role in the play Rashomon, but “the director told him, we cannot cast you because you’ll stand out.” Instead, Mexican-born Ricardo Montalbán was cast in the lead role. One of the first plays East West Players produced was Rashomon with Mako taking the lead.
Tim Dang who was East West Players producing artistic director from 1993 to 2016 notes that the “main mission is to develop performers.” These performers had limited opportunities in Los Angeles on stage and in the movies. In doing so, the theater company helped change the thinking of the people of Los Angeles toward AAPI actors.
All three documentaries are well produced and show how AAPI people have been actively and influentially involved in the arts.
Chinatown Punk Wars premieres on 4 October (Wednesday) at 9 p.m. PST on KCET and Friday, 6 October at 8 p.m. on PBS SoCal.
L.A. Rebellion: A Cinematic Movement premieres on 18 October (Wednesday) at 9 p.m. on KCET and on 20 October (Friday) at 8 p.m. on PBS SoCal.
East West Players premieres on 8 November (Wednesday) at 9 p.m. on KCET and on 10 November (Friday) at 8 p.m. on PBS SoCal.
Following the broadcast, each episode will stream on the free PBS app. Members of PBS SoCal and KCET will get early access to stream all six episodes on PBS Passport starting Oct. 4. Five additional free screenings of the entire ARTBOUND season 14 documentary lineup accompanied by filmmaker panel discussions will take place at LAist’s convening venue, The Crawford (474 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, CA 91105) from October thru December. For more information and to RSVP for the in-person screening events, please visit: LAist.com/events.
All six of the documentaries in the new season will also subsequently air on PBS SoCal in Southern California with Chinatown Punk Wars debuting Fri., Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. PT on PBS SoCal. The films will also be available for streaming at kcet.org/artbound and the free PBS app.
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