Three days after the Titanic sank in April 1912, around 700 survivors reached New York on another ship, the Carpathia, which had picked them up in the frigid North Atlantic.
Some have reunited with their loved ones. Others received medical attention or simply breathed relief to find solid ground after a disaster that killed 1,500 people.
But not everyone came down from the Carpathia.
Six of the survivors, all Chinese sailors, had to stay aboard the ship, which was banned from entering the United States under an anti-immigration law called the Chinese Exclusion Act. The next day, immigration officials escorted them through Manhattan and loaded them aboard a cargo ship bound for Cuba they had been hired to work on. And then they apparently disappeared.
Although the Titanic disaster and the lives of many of its survivors have been extensively documented, the history 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 retrace the lives of those who survived: Lee Bing, Fang Lang, Chang Chip, Ah Lam, Chung Foo and Ling Hee.
“I was like, ‘It’s just not possible that six guys went on and never got married, never had children, never told anyone about this story.” ” Steven Schwankert, principal investigator of the film, said in an interview in Beijing.
Surviving the Titanic was just one of the many obstacles the six men faced as Chinese migrants at the turn of the 20th century, when they were the specific targets of discriminatory policies in countries like Britain, Canada. and the United States. The impact of these policies continues to be felt generations later, including in the wave of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia triggered 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 the policies and remarks of former President Donald Trump. “These are issues that we tackled over 100 years ago. “
Little is known about the history of the sailors even in China, where the 1997 James Cameron film was a huge success and a life-size replica of the ship is being built in a theme park. When a trailer for “The Six” was posted in 2017 on the Chinese social media site Weibo, it was viewed millions of times and quickly caught the attention of distributors who offered for a theatrical release at. nationwide.
Much of the life of Chinese sailors has been influenced by the currents of history, including their presence on the Titanic to begin with. Union strikes in Britain had left them out of 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 became lifeboats, but the other three fell into sub-zero water along with hundreds of others when the ship was swallowed up 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 debris and waited for a single lifeboat to return in search of survivors, making him one of the last to be rescued.
Fang’s rescue was the inspiration for the ending of the movie “Titanic” and was even depicted 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 portrayed by the shipowner and the media in a negative light, which may – to have been one of the reasons why their story remained unknown even to some of their descendants.
When the liner sank, four of the men reached a crowded, but not full, lifeboat which included J. Bruce Ismay, the owner of the Titanic, who was later criticized for not sinking with his ship. Speaking to investigators after the disaster, Ismay described the Chinese men as stowaways. Reports also accused them of dressing as women so that their rescue is a priority.
Although the filmmakers planned to report whatever they discovered, “it turns out we found no direct evidence of them doing things they were accused of, and there was a much better explanation,” said Arthur Jones, director of Shanghai based in Shanghai. 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 her end of the boat just couldn’t see everyone on board.
In making “The Six,” a team of researchers in China and around the world searched for clues about the survivors, who most likely came from Guangdong Province or elsewhere in southern China. In the years following the Titanic disaster, some of the survivors most likely ended up in Britain, where sailors were scarce because men working on merchant ships had been enlisted during WWI.
After World War I and again after World War II, when their work was no longer needed, thousands of Chinese sailors were forcibly repatriated by the British government, sometimes leaving families they had founded in Great Britain. Brittany without explanation for their disappearance. According to the filmmakers, this may be what happened to some of the Chinese survivors of the Titanic sinking.
“Instead of using exclusionary law, they just used contract law to get rid of thousands of Chinese men,” Jones said of UK authorities.
The UK government said last month it would investigate the repatriation program, which has come under more scrutiny in recent years.
Other Chinese survivors made it to the United States or Canada despite laws against the immigration of Chinese workers that would not be repealed until decades later.
To circumvent the laws, thousands of people born in China entered with false documents. Protecting their new identities often required keeping their past lives a secret, even from partners and children.
“There are still people for whom this is an intimate family affair,” Schwankert said.
Fang’s son, Tom Fong, said his father, who died in 1985 at the age of 90, had never spoken much in his life, but Fong knew he was shipwrecked.
In 2003, a cousin told Fong it was the Titanic. When Fong and his son searched online, they found their last name on the passenger list, spelled slightly differently, as can happen when Chinese names are romanized. Then they found a description of the man hanging on a piece of debris until he was saved, which fits Fang’s story.
But Fong encountered skepticism from Titanic enthusiasts and experts until more than a decade later, when he heard from Schwankert and Jones. Fong, 61, owner of the Cozy Inn in Janesville, Wisconsin, one of the country’s oldest Chinese restaurants, said he shared his family’s story in part to justify himself.
“And then on top of that,” he said, “I just wanted the truth to be known.”