Martin Wong and LA Punkers Play to Save Music in Chinatown

Punk music and kids come together with the 15th edition of Save Music in Chinatown at the Grand Star Jazz Club on Sunday afternoon.

The lineup: Black Flag and Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris with Midget Oddjob; the Unhushables with M.I.A.-Big Drill Car vocalist Frank Daly and Supernova rhythm section Art Mitchell and Dave Collins; and Hurry Up featuring the Bangs’ Maggie Vail, Cringer-J Church tribute Cringeworthy; and DJ Lisa Fancher.

There’s also a super secret headliner we hear might just be The Adolescents.


The charitable event helps raise money and awareness to support the music program at Castelar Elementary.

We got the lowdown from Martin Wong, who runs the event.  He sat down with editor Donna Balancia to answer the important questions.

CR: What is the purpose of Save The Music Chinatown?

MW: When Eloise was a Kindergartener, my wife Wendy and I received a flyer from Castelar asking families to consider donating to its underfunded music program. We already loved the public elementary school in Chinatown and were locals from banquets and dim sum, but we were also very aware of the neighborhood’s past. The Hong Kong Cafe is where first-wave punk bands like X, Germs, Bags, Dils, Go-Go’s, and Weirdos played, so why not have all-ages matinees building on that tradition but with little kids, cookies, and a bake sale?

CR: Why kids and punk rock?

MW: It’s a unique culture to our neighborhood and it’s also something that I am into. If I’m going to put myself out there for a project, it better be for something I love 100 percent! Someone once kindly suggested that if we featured more popular forms of music like electronic deejays or maybe songs by children, our shows would be more popular and profitable, but I would do a lousy job and get sick of it fast!

Another thing that occurred to me later was that we are out raising money so inner-city, underprivileged, and often immigrant and English-learning kids can have a comprehensive msuic program, but we are also exposing children who can handle it to DIY culture. Making zines, putting on shows, and underground radical blew my mind and empowered me as a teenager; what if you find out about it as a little kid?

CR: How did you get involved, why did you start this movement?

MW: I have a background in independent publishing, which gave me a DIY sensibility but also a group of friends to consult: riot grrrls, deejays, musicians, activists, and combinations of all of the above. Only with help from old and new friends has this effort lasted five years.

CR: Who are some of the people who have helped you along the way?

MW: Wendy are Ooga Booga, Gabie at KCHUNG, Luke, Sara, and everyone at Human Resources–there was an independent scene in Chinatown before we started that helped a lot. My friends Steve and Max at KXLU and Daryl at RazorCake started supporting right away, which helps me feel less alone when it seems like we get no coverage or help. Of course my wife and daughter. Doing a project like this together is the best!  Wendy and I were a great team at Giant Robot magazine, where I was the editor and she was the graphic designer, and now we have Eloise as our art department!

Former LAUSD teacher, punker and activist, Alice Bag supports Save The Music in Chinatown - Photo © 2018 Donna Balancia
Former LAUSD teacher, punker and activist, Alice Bag supports Save The Music in Chinatown – Photo © 2018 Donna Balancia

CR: What are some memories that stand out?

MW: Seeing Eloise grow up around the shows has been amazing. At first she was a little fan who danced around and ate cookies. Slowly she has grown up to go on the radio to talk about the shows, illustrate the posters and zines, introduce bands onstage, and now be a guest singer! She’s joined Tabitha (Sabbath’s “Paranoid”), The Neptunas (Agent Orange’s “Bloodstains”), and Lois (her signature song “Strumpet”). The band she has started with cousins will play before it’s all over.

CR: Were you around in the punk days and what are some fond memories?

MW: I saw Bikini Kill and Rancid shows at the  Hong Kong Cafe, but just missed the glory days, so to have The Gears, The Crowd, Alley Cats, Chick Dukowski, and others who played back in the day come back for us is incredible. I saw a lot of bands at Fenders, The Roxy, Whisky, and The Palladium, and then UCLA, Scream, Jabberjaw, Al’s Bar, Raji’s, etc. so I’ve been trying to mix up the generations and scenes of independent music. Our last show had Olympia’s pop underground stars  Lois and Calvin Johnson with Alice Bag, Phranc, and Mike Watt! The next one will have original punks Keith Morris, Tony Adolescent, and Lisa Fancher from Dangerhouse and Frontier Records along with members of J Church, Big Drill Car, Bangs, and other later punks that are more like my peers.

CR: Who are some of the punk rock people who have helped you over the years?

MW: Mike from Channel Three and Hector from The Zeros came to our first show just to support and  then went on to play multiple times! Tony from Adolescents has been a big supporter, too. Not only did he arrange for his band to play our first surprise set but he has joined The Crowd and Channel Three at our shows! Alice Bag and Mike Watt have been regulars and Adam Pfahler has been one of our biggest supporters, as well. His band California has played three times, and now that Jawbreaker has gotten back together I have my fingers crossed.

CR: How long have you been doing this and how much money has been raised?  Where does money go?

MW: This is our fifth year. We raise about $10,000 a year and every cent from ticketing, the raffle, and the bake sale, plus general donations, goes toward music education at Castelar. The bands, bake sale crew, our hosts Human Resources and now the Grand Star, and our friends and family who help do it all for free.

CR: What is the biggest needs in the public schools in America right now?

MW: I think public education is in a real crossroads with billionaire privatizers pushing for charter schools that are operated without transparency or accountability toward the public good. Wendy and I support not only Chinatown’s neighborhood school but the idea of equitable publlic education for all as well as protecting the profession of teaching. As a result, we have become leaders of the school’s booster club, supporters of anti-gentrification efforts in Chinatown, and allies of UTLA, the teachers’ union.

CR: How can people help? Where can they donate or how can they help their own school?

MW: Marching and making donations is helfpul and great but seeing bands, eating cookies, including kids, and having  fun with friends and family is my kind of activism. I think people out there want to help and will gladly do so if they are presented with a cool outlet. I could never put on shows for a living–it’s risky and ruthless–but I have no problem asking bands to play for the benefit of kids in our beloved neighborhood. Iif your intentions are pure and your love is real, flaming out is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.

Save The Music Chinatown takes place at 1:30 p.m. at Grand Star Jazz Club in Chinatown. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Kids under 12 years old are free. For more information, check out the Facebook event page.