Asia

New documentary film on the six Chinese survivors of Titanic sinking opens in China

BEIJING – When the “unsinkable” Titanic fatally struck an iceberg on its way from Southampton in England to New York City in the early hours of April 15, 1912, 705 of its 2,200 passengers and crew survived. Of these, six were Chinese.

Who exactly were these men who managed to escape perishing in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean has largely been unknown for a century; they certainly never made it into the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster movie by director James Cameron.

But American writer and editor Steven Schwankert, a China resident of over two decades, was curious enough to convince his Shanghai-based friend, British filmmaker Arthur Jones, to get on board for a documentary on these mysterious Chinese passengers en route to the US.

The Six opened in cinemas in China on Friday (April 16), a day after the 109th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.

The two had collaborated on another documentary, The Poseidon Project, about the search for British submarine HMS Poseidon, which sank off the coast of the eastern Chinese province of Shandong after colliding with a cargo ship in 1931.

Schwankert, who is also a scuba instructor and maritime buff, knew that there were Chinese on the Titanic, but public information was scant.

“Where did they go? Where did they end up? I thought during the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking in 2012, with all the publicity around it, somebody would put his or her hand up and say, I’m Jacqueline Chen from Illinois, and my grandfather was on the Titanic, and absolutely nothing came up,” said Schwankert, co-creator and lead researcher of the new documentary. “It just didn’t make any sense.”

The pair would spend the next two years trying to identify the Chinese men on board the Titanic – the six who were rescued and another two who died.

There wasn’t much to go on at first, just a manifest with romanised names: Ah Lam, Fang Lang, Len Lam, Cheong Foo, Chang Chip, Ling Hee, Lee Bing and Lee Ling.

Schwankert and Jones later found that these men, all sailors assigned to third-class cabins on the Titanic, had worked on ships in the United Kingdom but were being transferred to New York in the midst of a coal strike.

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States that banned immigration of Chinese labourers, the mariners were packed off on a British steamship to Cuba after being rescued.

It was the manifest from this ship showing the Chinese names of the men that propelled the detective work.

“That’s how we really got going, from there,” said Schwankert, who also poked around Titanic forums on the Internet.


The Six’s co-creator and lead researcher Steven Schwankert on a journey to trace the descendants of the six Chinese survivors of the Titanic. PHOTO: LOST PENSIVOS FILM

On one of these discussion boards, he found Tom Fong, an American-Chinese restaurateur in Wisconsin in the US who was there looking for answers as he believed his father was one of those Chinese passengers.

“You have to go looking for people who are looking for you,” said Schwankert of hitting gold on this online forum. “Thanks to finding Tom Fong, we were able to start putting together one of the stories and that also helped us understand the rest of it.”

Fong’s father, Fang Lang, from Taishan in Guangdong province, was among the last of those to be rescued. He was found in the water clinging on to a piece of wood by a lifeboat that returned to scour for survivors.

The other five managed to get onto lifeboats; four of them in one of the last to be lowered into the waters.

But more than a story about these little-known Chinese passengers of the Titanic, the documentary – which took about six years to make – has managed to tell a tale of immigration, racial discrimination and class inequality that is not far from realities today.

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The documentary gave Schwankert and Jones an opportunity to examine accusations that the Chinese survivors were stowaways or had disguised themselves as women to get on the lifeboats.

That first accusation, at least, was quickly debunked by the pair, who enlisted the help of university students to build a replica of a collapsible lifeboat, which disproved that the men could have hidden unseen.

“The anti-Asian sentiment that you’re seeing in the US right now – I hope that the documentary calls attention to the fact that these are not new problems,” said Schwankert.

“There has been anti-Asian hate in the United States since as long as there have been Asians in the United States. The fact that we’ve been dealing with these problems for over 100 years should tell us that it’s not going to go away or get resolved quickly.”

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