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Chinatown's Place In California Punk


Time to hear Wacko.


SIMON: Wacko, as you know, is a Southern California punk band, just as you know BJ Leiderman writes our theme music. This was recorded last Saturday night when Wacko played inside a Denny's in Santa Ana, an all-American slam.

ZAINE DRAYTON: Kids jumping off of tables, climbing onto other kids that are also on tables. Kids flying into you when you're trying to play your instrument.

SIMON: That's Zaine. He plays the guitar and sings for Wacko. Their performance inflicted more than a thousand dollars in damages. Denny's isn't the only restaurant chain that hosts punk bands. There's been a mini-moshing at a Wendy's in Tennessee, shredding at a Hardee's in Illinois. But in Southern California, punk has a special relationship to a different group of restaurants.

MADELINE LEUNG COLEMAN: Most people agree that the first punk shows started happening around LA in 1977.

SIMON: That's Madeline Leung Coleman, a senior editor at The Nation magazine. Last summer, she wrote an article for Topic magazine on the history of punk in Chinatown.

LEUNG COLEMAN: The city was in the slumps of a recession, and a lot of the people who would've normally ventured downtown to go to eat at restaurants in Chinatown weren't going there anymore.

SIMON: And punk bands, with their reputations for being loud and destructive, were having a hard time booking venues. Bill Hong and Esther Wong recognized an opportunity. They both owned businesses that were struggling and had unused banquet space in their restaurants. So along with the steamed carp with tofu, there was...


SIMON: ...The Germs, live at Hong Kong Cafe. And while waiters served egg drop soup and spring rolls, the ceiling rumbled with...


THE ALLEY CATS: (Singing) Down by the housing projects, the senator came in his limousine.

SIMON: ...The Alley Cats, another regular at Bill Hong's restaurant.

Madeline Leung Coleman says that with regular places to play, the punk bands were able to get noticed. Restaurant owners were willing to put up with a little noise for the business, and the occasional smashed table and broken toilet.

LEUNG COLEMAN: My family is Chinese as well, and it was easy for me to imagine my grandparents being in that situation. I think it really speaks to, like, an open-mindedness that isn't usually ascribed to immigrant populations.

SIMON: Chinatown restaurants and the rise of West Coast punk, such an obviously great story. It's currently in development, as they say, to be a movie, starring Awkwafina. One person's punk is another person's opportunity. That's the American way.


THE ALLEY CATS: (Singing) Too much junk, too much junk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.