“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

The 49th Parallel (Saturday in the UK) – Recovering British-Chinese actor and restaurateur Ley On

Posted: January 16th, 2018 | No Comments »

I happened to notice that (in the UK) Channel “5 Spike” (on satellite and freeview and all that…) is showing the movie 49th Parallel this coming Saturday at 2.20pm.

In the early days of World War II, a German U-boat is sunk in Canada’s Hudson Bay. Hoping to evade capture, a small band of German soldiers led by commanding officer Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) attempts to cross the border into the United States, which has not yet entered the war and is officially neutral. Along the way, the German soldiers encounter brave men such as French-Canadian fur trapper Johnnie (Laurence Olivier) and soldier Andy Brock (Raymond Massey).

Now why should this blatant piece of British propaganda aimed at getting isolationist America into the war against the Nazis interest China Rhyming readers I hear you ask? Well, the answer is Ley On…

Ley On is a largely forgotten part of British-Chinese history, and he deserves to be better remembered…I first came across Ley On in a 1932 article in The Queenslander (Australian) newspaper about Chinese restaurants in London…

Ley On’s restaurant in 1947

RETRACING our steps and crossing Shaftesbury Avenue at Wardour Street is the first restaurant in London to be called Chop Suey. This was opened by Ley On, a film artist, who has played in pictures with Anna May Wong. The premises consist of two floors at the corner of Meard Street, with entrances in both thoroughfares. Here may be purchased every kind of Chinese food and even delicacies like shark’s fin, while bowls and other crockery, ivory chop-sticks, Chinese pencils, and Chinese gramophone records are on sale, and are exhibited in cases round the walls. The lower room has some very amusing paintings, for when Ley On opened his restaurant he invited his artist friends to roll up and help in the decorating. Strange tales told out of Burmah, Indo-China, Siam, and every corner of the Eastern world may be gathered and conjured from these walls.

And indeed Ley On was an actor, originally from China, who arrived in Europe some time after the First World War. He appeared in at least eight films starting with a German film – Der Weg Zur Schande – in 1930. That was one of Anna May Wong’s German films where she went to work with the expressionists after having been a success in London in Piccadilly. The film did come out in the UK as The Flame of Love, so audiences would have seen him in London.

Ley On was apparently born in Canton in 1890 but, after visiting Germany, settled largely in London – in 1931 he appeared in the film The Boat from Shanghai (a forgettable romance on the high seas pic), a movie also known as Chin China Chinaman.He then appeared in a British vehicle for Charles Laughton called The Beachcomber (1938) from the Somerset Maugham novel. During the Second World War War (once he had opened his restaurant in the early 1930s and it was still running successfully) he was obviously in London and did his bit appearing in the Powell & Pressburger patriotic movie 49th Parallel, a movie aimed at getting the reluctant yanks to come and fight fascism – Ley On played an Eskimo!!I’m not sure but I think the only photograph of Ley On I can find is the one below – a still from 49th Parallel with an eskimo in the background, possibly Ley On (but I can’t be sure – he’s not credited in the photo).

In 1942’s forgettable Banana Ridge he played a Chinese “boy” though he’d have been 52 by that point! He carried on appearing in Brit-flicks after the war – in 1947 heading to North Wales (aka the Himalayas!) with Deborah Kerr and Flora Robson for Black Narcissus, another Powell and Pressburger flick and a big hit – certainly his biggest. His last credited film appears to have been in 1950 – The Black Rose – absolute nonsense about Norman archers going to China with an embarrassed looking Orson Welles, Tyrone Power and Jack Hawkins.

Somehow between the movies and the catering business, Ley On did well. Ley On’s was  known as a fairly romantic spot due to its subdued lighting and (unusually for 1930s Chinese restaurants) fully licensed bar that allowed couples to drink before dinner. And couples also might be able to star spot as it was a rather busy celebrity hangout given Ley On’s contacts. The young Richard Attenborough popped in regularly; the actress Kay Kendall would reputedly walk in, demand the best table and announce she only had one pound to spend. Ley On, who knew the added value of fashionable celebrities at the best tables for everyone to see, ensured she got the best seats and a good dinner for her single quid. Ley On, it seems, could afford such things and became quite wealthy from the restaurant business – he was known for riding around Soho in his white Bentley driven by a Burmese chauffeur and moving among the tables speaking to guests who noted his large diamond ring. Still, the more Bohemian side of life continued – Scotland Yard reportedly routinely watched the restaurant and its clientele in the late 1930s after reports that the London branch of the Anglo-Soviet Youth Friendship Society, a Communist Party ‘Front’ organisation, had been established over a dim-sum lunch at Ley On’s. The restaurant was still open for business in the mid-1990s billed as ‘London’s Most Famous Chinese Restaurant’, though had moved premises to No.56 Wardour Street in the 1960s.

Ley On’s original premises are still there – now a rather tacky slot machines arcade called Las Vegas. If anyone knows anything else about Ley On I’d love to hear from you….



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