A century after the Titanic sank, a film tries to rescue 6 survivors’ stories
By Jennifer Jett
Three days after the Titanic sank in April 1912, about 700 survivors shuffled into New York off another ship, the Carpathia, which had scooped them up from the icy North Atlantic.
Some reunited with loved ones. Others received medical care or simply breathed in relief to be back on solid ground after a disaster that killed 1,500 people.
But not everyone got off the Carpathia.
Six of the survivors, all Chinese sailors, had to stay on the ship, prohibited from entering the United States under an anti-immigration law called the Chinese Exclusion Act. The next day, immigration officials escorted them across Manhattan and put them aboard a Cuba-bound cargo ship they had been contracted to work on. And then they seemingly vanished.
Although the Titanic disaster and the lives of many of its survivors have been exhaustively documented, the story of its Chinese passengers has long been overlooked. “The Six,” a documentary now heading to international film festivals after a theatrical release in China, seeks to trace the lives of those who survived: Lee Bing, Fang Lang, Chang Chip, Ah Lam, Chung Foo and Ling Hee.
“I thought, ‘It’s just not possible that six guys just went on and never got married, never had children, never told anyone about this story,’” Steven Schwankert, the film’s lead researcher, said in an interview from Beijing.
Surviving the Titanic was just one of many obstacles the six men faced as Chinese migrants in the early 20th century, when they were the specific targets of discriminatory policies in countries like Britain, Canada and the United States. The impact of those policies continues to be felt generations later, including in the wave of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s not something that started with the last president saying things about our relationship with China,” Schwankert said, referring to policies and remarks of former President Donald Trump. “These are issues that we were addressing over 100 years ago.”
The sailors’ story is little-known even in China, where the 1997 James Cameron film was a huge hit and a life-size replica of the ship is being built at a theme park. When a trailer for “The Six” was posted in 2017 on the Chinese social media site Weibo, it got millions of views and quickly drew the attention of distributors who offered a nationwide theatrical release.
Much about the Chinese sailors’ lives was influenced by the currents of history, including their presence on the Titanic to begin with. Labor strikes in Britain had left them without work, so their employer reassigned them to a North American route. The Titanic was supposed to take eight sailors as third-class passengers from Southampton, England, to their new ship in New York.
When the liner struck an iceberg late on April 14, the eight men acted quickly. Five made it into lifeboats, but the other three fell into the subzero water with hundreds of others as the ship was swallowed by the sea.
Two of those three sailors, Lee Ling and Len Lam, are believed to have died in the water. The third, Fang, clung to a piece of debris and waited until a single lifeboat returned to search for survivors, making him among the last to be saved.
Fang’s rescue was the inspiration for the end of the movie “Titanic” and was even portrayed in a deleted scene. (Cameron, an executive producer of “The Six,” is interviewed in the film.) But for decades after the sinking, the Chinese survivors were painted by the ship’s owner and the news media in a negative light, which may have been one reason their story remained unknown even to some of their descendants.
As the liner sank, four of the men reached a crowded, but not full, lifeboat that included J. Bruce Ismay, the Titanic’s owner, who was later criticized for not going down with his ship. Speaking to investigators after the disaster, Ismay described the Chinese men as stowaways. News reports also accused them of dressing as women so their rescue would be prioritized.
Although the filmmakers planned to report whatever they discovered, “it turns out we didn’t find any direct evidence of them doing things they were accused of, and there was a much better explanation,” said Arthur Jones, the Shanghai-based director of the film.
As part of their investigation, the filmmakers built a replica of the lifeboat the four Chinese sailors were in and filled it with people to simulate what happened. They concluded that Ismay and others at his end of the boat simply could not see everyone else who was in it.
In making “The Six,” a team of researchers in China and around the world looked for clues about the survivors, who were most likely from Guangdong province or elsewhere in southern China. In the years after the Titanic disaster, some of the survivors most likely ended up back in Britain, where sailors were scarce because men working on merchant ships had been drafted during World War I.
After World War I and again after World War II, when their labor was no longer needed, thousands of Chinese sailors were forcibly repatriated by the British government, sometimes leaving the families they had started in Britain with no explanation for their disappearance. According to the filmmakers, it is possible that this is what happened to some of the Chinese survivors of the Titanic sinking.
Other Chinese survivors made their way to the United States or Canada despite laws against the immigration of Chinese laborers that would not be not repealed until decades later.
To get around the laws, thousands of people born in China entered with false documents. Protecting their new identities often required keeping their past lives secret even from partners and children.
“There’s still people for whom this is intimate family history,” Schwankert said.