Hua Nan Motors – HK distributor of DeSoto, Peugeot and Renault automobiles from the 1940s to 1960s

York Lo: Hua Nan Motors – HK distributor of DeSoto, Peugeot and Renault automobiles from the 1940s to 1960s

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1957 Chinese advert for Hua Nan Motors promoting De Soto and Peugeot.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Hua Nan Motors Federal Co Inc (華南汽車公司) was a major car dealership in Hong Kong which served as exclusive distributor of American automobile brand DeSoto and French car brands Peugeot and Renault.

In the 1950s, the dealership operated out of 42-46 Gloucester Road in Wanchai (currently the Jubilee Centre) with its showroom on the ground floor and offices on the second floor. It also had a showroom in Kowloon at 88-90 Argyle Street and an auto parts outlet at 27-29 Lockhart Road. DeSoto was a mid-priced brand marketed by Chrysler Corporation from 1928 to 1961 and Hua Nan was founded in 1947 as a China Trade Act corporation to represent DeSoto cars and trucks in South China by Chinese American businessman King-Lai Yee (余敬禮, 1884-1963).

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King Lai Yee (Source: Washington Post, 1963)

According to his obituary, Yee was born and raised in Canton. He went to America in 1915 and initially lived in the Pittsburgh area where by 1930 he was a leader of the Chinese community as the president of the national On Leong Association. The same year however, he was arrested with other men and charged with violation of the national narcotics act, although he was acquitted in the following year.[i]

He eventually moved to Washington DC where he set up the Washington Catering Co. In 1937, he purchased a nightclub by the name of La Paree at 14th Street Northwest from Lee Fong and renamed it Bamboo Garden.

Three years later, he changed the name of the club to Casino Royal. Featuring an orchestra led by Jivin’ Jack Schaffer and a string of dance and vaudeville acts, the club served up Broadway style entertainment and Americanized Chinese cuisine in the 1940s.

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Postcard of Casino Royal from the 1940s. (Source: eBay)

After the establishment of Hua Nan in Hong Kong in 1947, Yee increasingly spent more time in the colony than in the DC area and in 1953 decided to sell Casino Royal to Leon Zeiger and Harry Snider. The new owners kept the name and cuisine of the club but stepped up its entertainment and famous entertainers who performed at the club in the 1950s included Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee, Bobby Darin and Mae West (who first appeared in 1955). [ii]

For whatever reason, Yee decided to sell Hua Nan in early 1963 to the Hutchison group, which was expanding aggressively then under the leadership of Sir Douglas Clague.[iii]

Later in the year on September 26, 1963, Yee died of stroke in Hong Kong at the age of 79. His body was shipped back to Washington DC where he was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery.[iv]

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Article about King Lai Yee’s arrival in HK with his family in 1959 Source: Wah Kiu Yat Po, 1959-1-29

References:

[i] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov 20, 1930; June 9, 1931
[ii] DeFerrari, John “Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats” Arcadia Publishing, 2013
[iii] 華僑日報, 1963-3-6
[iv] 華僑日報, 1963-10-10; Washington Post, Oct 12, 1963

This article was first posted on 20th January 2017.

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