The film was not a commercial success when first released.
The film starts in a riverfront slum in Limehouse. The Lily Gardens, a local club, is owned by Chinese-American immigrant Harry Young. Young uses the club as a center of operations for his lucrative smuggling operation. Young is a recent arrival in London, but he has managed to take over crime operations in his area. Rival criminal Pug Talbot is increasingly driven out of business. Talbot is wrathful due to the situation, and his anger causes him to abuse his own daughter, Toni. The girl has been raised to be a pickpocket and is under her father's control.
At one point, Toni is about to be arrested, and Young helps her out. She is grateful for his help and grows very fond of him. Talbot alerts the police about one of Young's operations, in hopes of hurting his rival's business. Toni overhears the plan and warns Young in time. Young manages to evade the police. Talbot is furious at his treacherous daughter and beats her up. Young finds out about the abuse and vows revenge against Talbot.
Young pretends that he wants to negotiate with Talbot, and invites him for a meeting at his apartment. Talbot accepts the offer, unaware that it is a trap. When Talbot arrives from the meeting, Young has him stabbed to death. The corpse is abandoned in the street. Young offers Toni a job at his organization as a "watchdog", in exchange for room and board. Toni takes the offer and gets hired.
Young has a Chinese lover, Tu Tuan, that is suspicious over his relationship with Toni. She believes that her lover has fallen in love with the "white girl" and warns him against fruitlessly pursuing her. Worried that a jealous Tu Tuan might hurt Toni, Young removes the pickpocket from his operations. He gives Toni an allowance for her living expenses, which she sees as charity.
Away from her life of crime and with free time in her hands, Toni goes sight-seeing in London. She soon befriends pet-shop owner Eric Benton, and starts spending her afternoons with him. Toni and Benton fall in love. Toni starts thinking about getting a job to stop financially depending on Young. Young prevents her from doing so, in fear of losing her. Tu Tuan finds out about Toni's love life and warns Young about it. Tu Tuan derides Young for his unrequited love for a white woman, before ending her own relationship with him.
Toni confesses to Benton about her criminal past. Benton visits The Lily Gardens and asks for an appointment with Young. In response, Young makes arrangements to have Benton killed, in a manner similar to Talbot. Young soon personally goes on a smuggling mission, and has Toni escort him. He is unaware that the police is expecting him this time. A distraught Tu Tuan had betrayed him to the police, before committing suicide.
During the mission, Toni finds out about Young's plans to have Benton killed. She is terrified for the safety of her loved one. By her reaction, Young realizes that Toni really loves the other man. He decides to call off the murder plans, and tries to warn his hired assassins in time. He is pursued by the police while trying to reach them, and gets mortally wounded by gunfire. Young calls off the murder in time, and manages to clear Toni's name from any involvement in crime. He then dies because of his wounds. Due to Young's self-sacrifice, Toni and Benton are safe and free to further pursue their relationship.George Raft as Harry Young
Jean Parker as Toni
Anna May Wong as Tu Tuan
Kent Taylor as Eric Benton
Montagu Love as Pug Talbot
According to the American Film Institute, the working title of the film was Limehouse Nights.
The role of Toni went through casting changes before filming begun. The role was originally intended for Sylvia Sidney, but she turned down offers to play in the film. Heather Angel was tested for the role, without getting hired. The role was eventually offered to Jean Parker. Parker was under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the time, and Paramount Pictures had to come to an agreement to get the actress "loaned" to them.
According to news articles from the 1930s, some scenes of the film were filmed at the port of San Pedro, Los Angeles. The scenes were reportedly directed by William Shea, who is credited as the second unit director.
There are some contradictions in the credits of the film. The pressbook of the film mentions Grover Jones among the screenwriters, but not all sources agree. Most sources credit the art direction of the film to Hans Dreier and Robert Usher. However, another source does not mention Usher's involvement. It credits the art direction to Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson.
The film reportedly includes genuine "oriental artwork" in its scenes. The pressbook reports that the artwork was provided by importer Tom Gubbins.
An early version of the script is preserved at the library files of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). It mention the role of "Ching Lee", which was intended for James Wing.