LA Beat Interview: Martin Wong of Save Music in Chinatown

Sean Wheeler and Zander Schloss (Photo by Martin Wong)

Sean Wheeler and Zander Schloss (Photo by Martin Wong)

Sunday, January 31st from 2pm – 6pm, Save Music in Chinatown will present their 8th fundraising concert to help the music education program at Castelar Elementary School. The concert features The CrowdBad Cop / Bad Cop, FourEyedFour, and Bombón. All proceeds (after Eventbrite fees) will be donated directly to FACES (Friends and Alumni of Castelar Elementary School, a registered nonprofit organization) to be applied specifically to the music education program.

The elementary school was established in 1882 and is in the very center of Chinatown. “The inner-city campus serves mostly immigrant kids who don’t get much exposure to performing arts or creative outlets.” Chinatown was an integral part of LA’s early punk scene with clubs like Madame Wongs, and is now a center for LA’s art scene. Save Music in Chinatown hopes to create a bridge between musicians, artists, and the community, to come together and help the kids. Buy tickets here.

We spoke with founder Martin Wong about the program. Interview after the break.

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When and how did Save Music in Chinatown get started?

It started right when [my daughter] Eloise started attending kindergarten at Castelar. My wife Wendy and I immediately liked the school, the teachers, and the kids. We thought the dual language Mandarin program was really cool. We loved that our family would be spending time in the neighborhood where my immigrant grandparents and in-laws spent time.

But I think it was in the first week or so that we got a memo saying that the school’s music program was de-funded and that we parents could help raise $50,000 to help pay for it. Wendy and I knew there was no way the mostly immigrant and blue collar neighborhood would come up with that sort of dough, so we tried to think of ways to help besides donating  loads of money since we aren’t rich.

Wendy came up with the idea of fund-raising concerts because she knew that I had made a lot of friends in bands over the years that helped make Giant Robot magazine. (I co-founded it in 1994 and edited and wrote in every issue, and she designed every issue from 18 to the end, issue 68.) I also had a lot of friends in the art world. So the idea was for us to build a bridge between Chinatown’s punk rock history at places like the Hong Kong Cafe and Madame Wong’s and today’s art gallery scene to help the kids there now.

Who were the first musicians to get on board?

More than one friend (Gabie Strong from UCLA and Jabberjaw days, Wendy Yao from Emily’s Sassy Lime and Ooga Booga) directed me to Human Resources as the ideal spot for us to have our benefit shows, and Lucky Dragons came along with it! Luke and Sara were both on the planning committee and volunteered their band. LA Fog was another HR-based group that stepped up and Eric Kim suggested Deradoorian as well. Instant lineup!

I sent an email to Nate Pottker, who I had met through Bob Forrest’s podcast. Not only did Bob play a solo set of Thelonious Monster and Bicycle Thief songs, but Nate has stuck around to become a huge part of Save Music in Chinatown and is now one of my best friends.

That first show was so amazing. Mike Magrann from Channel Three and Hector Penalosa from The Zeros showed up just to support the cause, and then they played our next show!

What have been your favorite shows so far?

It’s hard to pinpoint favorite shows because they’ve all been awesome, but I’ll share just a few cool moments off the top of my head…

– Tony Cadena singing the Simpletones “California” with Channel Three and then getting the Adolescents to play a secret show for us.

– Mike Watt writing sending a thank-you email the day after a show.

– Getting awesome underground bands from Beijing (Birdstriking, Chui Wan, Deadly Cradle Death) to play a show for us.

– California planning two of their SoCal tours around our humble Chinatown benefits. And the drummer Adam Pfahler actually played our wedding banquet in Chinatown years before with Whysall Lane.

– Making a zine with photos by Ben Clark and Vicki Berndt with an intro by Kirk Dominguez.

– Sean & Zander handing the microphone to Eloise, who totally knew the song “Retablo.”

– Eloise making flyers and having fun at punk shows with her cousins and friends.

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How have you helped the music program?

Thanks to the bands, the raffle donors, the bake sale crew, and everyone who shows up, we’ve raised about $10,000 in each of our first two years. Other donors step up, but that’s a pretty big chunk of money and I think there’s also value in raising awareness and building community.

I think it’s also awesome to expose DIY culture to the kids who can handle it. So not only do they receive music education and have a creative outlet, but they can also see some kick-ass musicians carry their own gear, make and/or sell their own merch, and play for small crowds on a tiny stage,  Being exposed to that was really empowering to me as a teenager, so imagine what it can do for little kids?

What are SMIC’s goals for 2016?

Just to have a lot of cool shows with rad bands and have fun! There was a spell when I was getting bummed that our shows don’t get a lot of coverage and we don’t sell out immediately. Punk matinees for kids in Chinatown would seem like an interesting story, right? But now I realize that if we got popular it wouldn’t be as fun for the little kids. How could they pogo in front if it was packed? And how would my flaky friends be able to get in if there weren’t tickets at the door?

Mostly, I just appreciate how cool it is that Wendy, Eloise, and I get to have fun doing something rad together that helps Chinatown. I have fond memories of going there with my family for wedding banquets when I was young and then going for dim sum with Wendy’s family when I started dating her. I never got to see X, The Weirdos, Black Flag, or the Germs at the Hong Kong Cafe, but now we’re carrying on the tradition and helping out the kids, too!

SMIC8 flyer art by Eloise! SMCI5 art by Louie Perez III, SMIC6 art by Nate Pottker, SMIC7 art by Miran Kim

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Elise Thompson

About Elise Thompson

Born and raised in the great city of Los Angeles, this food, culture and music-loving punk rock angeleno wants to turn you on to all that is funky, delicious and weird in the city. While Elise holds down the fort, her adventurous alter ego Kiki Maraschino is known to roam the country in search of catfish.
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