Men working on the facade of a Titanic replica in China

History

A new film explores the stories of 6 men from China who survived the Titanic sinking

Some hid their experiences after being scapegoated for surviving the shipwreck.

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Workmen put the finishing touches on a facade outside Mann's Chinese Theater before the premiere of the motion picture "Titanic" in Los Angeles, December 14, 1997.

Credit:

Rene Macura/AP/File photo

In China, the story of the Titanic is well known — well, at least the fictional 1997 Hollywood version about Rose and Jack. The movie was a blockbuster hit there. 

But what is less well-known is the fact that there were eight Chinese passengers on the real Titanic, and six of them actually survived. Their story has never been told — until now. A recently-released film called “The Six” explores their stories and what happened after they survived the most famous shipwreck in history.

The survivors were Ah Lam, Fang Lang, Chung Foo, Chang Chi, Ling Hee and Lee Bing. The two others who died were Lan Lam and Li Ling.

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They were professional sailors traveling third-class on the Titanic to get to another job. Their names were recorded in the ship’s passenger log, but that’s all that the filmmakers had to go by. That, and some damning American news reports from the time.

"They were kind of invisible right up until the moment that they got scapegoated."

Steven Schwankert, maritime researcher who worked on "The Six"

“You know, they were kind of invisible right up until the moment that they got scapegoated for, you know, what was labeled as ignoble behavior, which was surviving,” said Steven Schwankert, a maritime researcher who worked on the documentary. 

“There's a feeling that if you survived, that meant that someone died because you took their space on a lifeboat, and that's simply not the case.”

Five of the men escaped in lifeboats. News reports accused them of hiding under the seats and pretending to be women to get onboard. But Schwankert said his team’s research revealed this is false. “It showed that they weren't cowards, and that they didn't toss anyone overboard to save their own lives. It was an opportunity, and they took it,” he said.

The last Chinese survivor, Fang Lang, was found clinging to a piece of wood floating in the ocean. His story was almost immortalized in the 1997 "Titanic" film. A deleted scene from the movie shows a crewmember in a lifeboat returning to find a Chinese man floating on a door in the freezing water, surrounded by dead bodies.

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Titanic director James Cameron wound up cutting the scene, but Fang Lang’s story inspired the film’s big finale where Jack drowns and Rose survives alone on a wooden board.

As for the Chinese survivors from the real Titanic, life didn’t get easier for them.

When the rescue ship docked in New York, they weren’t allowed onshore. In 1912, the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in effect and it barred Chinese laborers from entering the US. The Chinese survivors were detained onboard and then transferred to another boat that took them to Cuba. 

Arthur Jones, who directed “The Six,” said racist policies in the US, UK, and Canada at the time have had a long-term effect on the descendants of Chinese immigrants from that era.

"[The story] actually has a tangible effect on people who are still alive now."

Arthur Jones, director, "The Six"

“I think we discovered that this was not just a story about a piece of metal that went down, but it actually has a tangible effect on people who are still alive now, whose backgrounds have been riven, have been broken apart,” he said.

The six men never felt safe sharing their harrowing stories. They worked on ships in the Caribbean, and then the UK, until they were forced to leave the country because of anti-immigrant policies. The men scattered around the world — to India, Hong Kong, Canada — and the US.

Fang Lang, the man who survived by floating on a door, immigrated to Milwaukee with a new name, Fong Wing Sun. He never told his wife and son, Tom Fong, about his past. Fong, who is featured in "The Six," only learned of it from a cousin after his father died.

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“This is the photo I think [around] the time [he was] on the Titanic,” said Fong, in a scene in the documentary. “I asked my mother about it and she’d never heard about it, she’d never heard about my father being on this boat and sinking or anything.”

The documentary team, more than half of whom were Chinese, were struck by the connection between the recent spike in Anti-Asian hate crimes around the world and what the six Titanic survivors had endured.

"By having a greater understanding of where the problems [of racism] come from, then hopefully we can find better solutions for them.”

Steven Schwankert, maritime researcher

“It shows that these are not new problems,” said Schwankert. “So, the bad news there is that they're probably not problems that are going to go away very quickly. By having a greater understanding of where the problems come from, then hopefully we can find better solutions for them.”

Related: Hong Kong’s Tiananmen museum shuts down amid investigation

What becomes clear is that these men survived much more than a shipwreck.   

“They just went on with their lives and it was just one more thing they had to face, but they never backed down. They just kept going,” he said. 

“The Six” is slated for a global release soon, and Schwankert is now also working on a Chinese-language book to go along with the film.

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