How Chinese Food Fueled the Rise of California Punk
Bill Hong was a Cantonese immigrant dad in his late 40s, running a restaurant in Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood with his sister Anna Hong and her husband Arthur, when two young promoters approached him with a business proposition: What did Hong think about renting out the restaurant’s upstairs banquet hall on the evenings when it wasn’t being used?
It was 1979, and LA was struggling. The entire country had plunged into a deep recession just a few years prior, and now Chinatown and the city’s downtown areas were falling into disrepair. More recent Chinese immigrants had started moving to suburban enclaves like the San Gabriel Valley, bypassing Chinatown and its businesses completely; the non-Chinese customers who used to flock to the neighborhood for exotic chow mein dinners were now avoiding downtown altogether.
When Bill Hong said yes to the promoters, he was trying to be practical. He knew the restaurant needed more customers; maybe letting a few young bands play could help bring them in. He never could’ve foreseen that his family’s establishment, the Hong Kong Low—located on a small street called Gin Ling Way—would become a focal point for a seminal music scene: West Coast punk.
Nor did he know how many times the restaurant’s toilet would get smashed in the process.
China Wagon Sacramento, California
Hong’s restaurant—known as the Hong Kong Café to showgoers—was far from the only Asian restaurant to incubate the California punk scene. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, from Sacramento to San Francisco, some of the state’s most important punk venues were actually Chinese and Filipino restaurants. At eateries like Sacramento’s China Wagon and Kin’s Coloma, or San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens, now-iconic bands such as X, the Germs, and Black Flag played some of their most memorable early gigs. The Hong Kong wasn’t even the first place in LA’s Chinatown to host gigs: the restaurant across the courtyard, Madame Wong’s, had already been doing the same for at least a year.
Unbelievably, the Hong Kong continued dinner service as usual during gigs, which took place almost every night. “Downstairs, there would be Chinese people eating dinner with their families. And upstairs, there would be this crazy punk stuff going on,” says Christy Shigekawa, Bill Hong’s great-niece. “You could see them going up the stairs, and people would be like, ‘Uh…’ Sometimes the ceiling would be shaking.”
The Hong Kong Café Los Angeles, California
“In some ways this was just like setting up any performance space, to try and draw in more customers to your restaurant with live music,” says Fiona I.B. Ngo, an associate professor of Asian American Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois and the author of a 2012 paper on the intersection of Southeast Asian refugee identities and punk music in late-’70s LA. In other words, the restaurant owners needed entertainment; the punks just happened to be the ones who showed up.
“It’s a weirdly practical business thing,” says Shigekawa, speculating about her great-uncle’s motivation. “And, culturally, maybe it helped that they were already not part of the mainstream. Maybe you’d get flak from other Chinatown people, but otherwise, how much was going to be damaged by doing something that was not socially acceptable?”
“Downstairs, there would be Chinese people eating dinner with their families. And upstairs, there would be this crazy punk stuff going on ... Sometimes the ceiling would be shaking.”
LA punk was far from all-white (Chicano kids, especially, had been part of the scene from the start), but, for non-Asians, immigrant-run Chinatown still held a certain transgressive allure. For people in the scene at the time, both living in rundown apartment buildings—alongside refugees and the other urban poor—and playing in Asian restaurants were intentionally political, and aesthetic, decisions. “The racialization of the space and the poverty of these spaces brings a certain sort of cachet in terms of being part of a political underclass,” explains Ngo.
The relationships between the punks and the proprietors could be … complicated. Esther Wong, the Chinese owner of Madame Wong’s, became infamous for her strong opinions; she insisted on vetting every band that played at her restaurant, and even told one Los Angeles Times reporter in 1980 that if she was given a bad tape, she liked to “throw it outside the window.” (Shigekawa says the restaurateur was also fiercely competitive, sometimes calling the fire department on the Hong Kong Café to break up its shows.) In the end, Wong was demonized by the scene when she became exasperated with the fights breaking out in her restaurant and banned certain groups—such as the Alley Cats and the Bags—from playing there.
Madame Wong’s Los Angeles, California
Still, the Shanghai-born Wong’s characterization as a “dragon lady” leaves a bitter aftertaste. For all their anti-conformity politics, says Ngo, the punks “didn’t recognize the ways that their racism, their orientalism, were going into how they imagined her character and her policies. They were somehow astonished that if they came in and destroyed her restaurant, she might not want them back.”
The heyday of these Asian restaurants-cum-venues didn’t last long: the Hong Kong Cafe only hosted shows from 1979 to 1981; Madame Wong’s held on until the beginning of 1987. Mabuhay Gardens gradually transitioned into a full-fledged music and comedy venue, propelled by the enthusiasm of its Pinoy owner Ness Aquino, hosting shows between 1976 and 1986.
Mabuhay Gardens San Francisco, California
Already, by the early 1980s, the artier, more eclectic bands of the early punk scene were giving way to the more macho sound of hardcore. But that intense moment of late ‘70s experimentation lives on in music legend—and in the family lore of the Asian Americans who ran the restaurants.
“I remember hearing this vague story about how there was a time when business was rough, and Uncle Bill had this crazy idea to let all these punks come into the restaurant and have shows,” says Shigekawa, who was born in the early 1980s, a few years after the shows ended, “and how they destroyed the place, and they were on drugs, and they were violent. They damaged the toilet, broke windows. And that the neighbors were mad about it, too.”
Kin’s Coloma Sacramento, California
Shigekawa is now working on a documentary about the venue; she’s interviewed dozens of musicians and fans who say their careers, and lives, were changed by their nights at the Hong Kong. What has struck her most, she says, is how significant this brief period was for them—and how differently they see those nights now. “A lot of people are almost apologetic,” she says. “They told me, ‘So sorry we did all these things to your family’s restaurant. It must have been so crazy for them. I wouldn’t have wanted a bunch of crazy teenagers to come and ruin my restaurant.’”