Overhearing a group of stuffy gentleman dismissing romance as sugary nonsense, young Englishman abroad Michael (Ernest Jay) sets out to prove his belief that the spirit of romance thrives even amidst the most sordid surroundings. He arrives in Tiger Bay, a lively, multiracial yet seemingly forever squabbling sector where glamorous nightclub proprietress Lui Chang (Anna May Wong) is struggling to protect her English foster sister Letty (René Ray) from the lascivious attentions of surly sailor Olaf (Henry Victor). Michael comes to their aid, but gets a knife in his shoulder for his trouble. As Michael recuperates, he and Letty fall in love while Lui Chang is targeted as part of a protection racket run by Olaf and his thugs.
Not to be confused with the 1959 Hayley Mills drama of the same name, Tiger Bay is a starchy but intriguing melodrama notable largely for the striking presence of early Asian-American film icon Anna May Wong and an editing credit for the young David Lean. Wong made her mark in silent cinema with a number of scene-stealing supporting roles, but American anti-miscegenation laws prevented her from landing the leading roles she deserved. Nevertheless she became a major star and fashion icon across Europe, appearing in German operas and on the British stage before creating a sensation with Piccadilly (1929), the first of five English films where she played the lead. Returning to Hollywood, Wong made a splash opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), but the combination of studio racism and harsh criticism from the conservative Chinese government consigned her to B movies and stereotypical “dragon lady” or self-sacrificing “butterfly” roles. Tiger Bay shunts Wong towards the latter but she outshines everyone else in the film with a performance of quiet grace, dignity and complexity, including a daring quasi-lesbian relationship with Letty. Although some consider Wong a gay icon, there is no evidence to confirm her rumoured relationships with Leni Riefenstahl were anything other than platonic, although she supposedly had a scandalous affair with Dracula director Tod Browning whilst underage.
The rest of the cast, particularly Margaret Yarde as twittering barmaid Fay, overplay their roles in the manner of many British potboilers, to the point where it becomes uncertain whether the film is a parody. Scenes shuffle between drama and farce, making time for the antics of a comedy parrot while reams of mindless chatter between supporting players do little to advance the plot. While appealingly idealistic, sappy lovers Michael and Letty exist purely to be kidnapped and abused and the plot seemingly sets out to disprove Michael’s romantic notions and rub his nose in the squalid realities of life. A late twist reveals Whistling Rufus, a shabbily dressed character glimpsed hanging out with the neighbourhood kids, is really an undercover policeman spying on Olaf and his cronies. And yet he proves completely useless, sitting back so Michael can subdue Olaf’s thugs before Lui Chang finally ends their villainy, although the strict moral censorship of the time requires this poor, long suffering, selfless woman pays a heavy price. The film moves briskly thanks to Lean’s editorial flair and the art direction by director J. Elder Wills is nicely evocative.