My last post on Esther Wong and her Madame Wong clubs sparked some of the coolest feedback I’ve received of anything I’ve written here so far. It’s been great reading the comments by others who remembered MW with fondness, but I also received emails from people I hadn’t spoken to in a long time (and frankly were surprised they read this blog at all) who were also a part of the scene.
I was especially happy to hear from “Heather.” If you’ve seen Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, Heather was my Penny Lane (the Kate Hudson character)—the older, totally unattainable rock n’ roll groupie chick I had a mad crush on. She happened to find my blog through a link on LA Observed and tracked down my email through a mutual friend. She’s in her early 40s now and has a daughter about to enter high school, but she’s still the gorgeous woman I remember; if her Facebook picture isn’t too off the mark. I was very happy to reconnect with her. I could tell she’s still passionate about the music as she shared a story about how her daughter bought a vintage New York Dolls t-shirt to wear on her first day of high school. She spoke about this with the same sort of pride you’d hear from Asian parents when their kid gets all “A”s on their report card.
I know I alluded to this in my Esther Wong blog, but all of this unexpected feedback reminded me of the impact this music had on my life and the fact that it was an elderly Chinese immigrant woman who was partially responsible for that by creating these venues that really allowed these influential rock and punk bands to exist and thrive. That still blows my mind. Who would’ve thought an Asian American “grandmother” like Esther Wong would be the person to save rock n’ roll?
And she wasn’t the only one. I introduce Exhibit B in my argument for how Asian America saved rock n’ roll—Ness Aquino and the Mabuhay Gardens.
The Mabuhay Gardens (also known as The Fab Mab) was a Filipino restaurant and club owned by Aquino (himself Filipino) in San Francisco’s North Beach. In 1976, legendary rock promoter Dirk Dirksen approached Aquino to book rock and punk acts at his club. Aquino agreed and as Esther Wong learned, his business took off soon afterwards. The acts that played (and oftentimes got their break) at his venue include The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Devo, The Avengers, Romeo Void, The Nuns, Iggy Pop, Neil Young, Redd Kross, Husker Du, The Ramones and The Damned. The club shut down in 1986, but it’s still fondly remembered as an integral part of punk/rock n’ roll history.
I was too young and too far away to have been a part of the Fab Mab, but even during my days at Madame Wong’s, people spoke of the Bay Area club with the same respect and awe reserved for discussions about the Pope. At the time, I didn’t know it was another Asian American who was at the heart of that scene as well. I wouldn’t learn this fact until years later.
If you look at the recorded history of rock n’ roll, you would think Asians didn’t play a role in it at all. I certainly didn’t read about Wong or Aquino in the mainstream music magazines. No one told me that one of the greatest rock stars of all time was Asian. This subject didn’t even come up in my college Asian American studies classes. I just assumed that we were invisible in this world as we were in so many other areas of the popular arts. But dig a little deeper and you’ll learn this is a lie. Asian Americans were and are an integral part of this legacy. People like Wong and Aquino helped save rock n’ roll, damnit, and that’s not an exaggeration! I plan on presenting you with more examples in future blogs.
One final thought on this subject for now. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I think what drew me to rock n’ roll as a child was my very status as an Asian American. During my elementary school years, I moved around frequently and oftentimes I was one of, if not, the only Asian kid in the class. I always felt like an outsider. And rock n’ roll at its core is music from the perspective of the outsider. It spoke to my emotions and my experience like nothing else. It made me feel that it was OK to be the outsider; to be different. And that made the inevitable racial taunts and fights more bearable. It may not be an exaggeration to say rock n’ roll saved my life. And for that, I owe our pioneers like Esther Wong and Ness Aquino more than I could ever repay.