Documentary ‘The Six’ asks: what happened to the Titanic’s Chinese survivors?

  • The blockbuster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet leaves out the story of the ship’s six Chinese survivors
  • Laws prevented the passengers from entering the US, so they were put on a ship to Cuba and their story was lost - until now
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The story of the Titanic had something missing - the ship's Chinese survivors.

American historian Steven Schwankert clearly recalls the day in 1997 when he watched the blockbuster movie Titanic in a crowded, smoke-filled cinema in Beijing.

“The cinema experience back then wasn’t great,” says Schwankert, on a Zoom call from his home in Beijing. “It was like watching a movie in your tiny high school gymnasium. The sound wasn’t great and the film was slightly out of focus … and there wasn’t any popcorn.”

Fast forward more than two decades and documentary The Six opened in cinemas across China on April 16. It is the untold story of the Chinese passengers aboard the RMS Titanic, and Schwankert was its lead researcher.

A board with information about one of the Titanic's Chinese survivors is shown during an interview with Arthur Jones, director of the documentary,

“If someone had told me 20 years ago that I’d be releasing a documentary about the Chinese passengers on the Titanic and the film was being released across China with support from [Titanic director] James Cameron, I would have told them they’re crazy,” he says.

Cameron is an executive producer of The Six.

Schwankert, who has called China home for more than 30 years, says releasing the documentary there made sense considering the popularity of the 1997 film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, which became the all-time highest grossing movie to be released in on the mainland at the time.

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A maritime historian, shipwreck buff and author of Poseidon: China’s Secret Salvage of Britain’s Lost Submarine (2013), Schwankert says the story of the Chinese Titanic passengers was too good to ignore.

The Six is also set to reignite global interest in the “unsinkable” ship that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage, from Southampton, on England’s south coast, to New York, killing more than 1,500 of the estimated 2,224 people on board.

Eight Chinese men were on board and six survived, landing in New York three days later aboard the Carpathia, the first ship to arrive at the scene of the disaster.

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Under the United States’ Chinese Exclusion Act, the men were transferred 24 hours later to a British steamship and sent to Cuba. What happened after that has been unclear – until now.

Directed by British filmmaker Arthur Jones, the 97-minute documentary traces Lee Bing, Fang Lang, Chang Chip, Ah Lam, Chung Foo and Ling Hee. The two believed to have perished in the disaster were Lee Ling and Len Lam.

What the team of international researchers uncovered – after tracking down the passengers’ descendants for the first time – is a tale of survival in the face of racism and anti-immigration policies.

Schwankert says the parallels between the anti-Asian fallout of 1912 with the Covid-19-fuelled anti-Asian hate crimes of today, is a sad case of history repeating itself. “It’s a reminder that we had race problems more than 100 years ago and, unfortunately, we’re still facing these problems today.”

The Six was scheduled for release this time last year, before the coronavirus pandemic wrecked those plans.

According to France-based news agency AFP, Cameron allowed Jones to show a scene which was not included in the cinema version of the blockbuster. The famous final scene of the movie, showing Jack (DiCaprio) and Rose (Winslet) – who was rescued from a piece of floating wreckage – was inspired by a real event but it was, in fact, Hongkonger Fang Lang who was rescued, he says.

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In the cut scene, an Asian-looking man hanging on for life on a piece of wood is plucked from the freezing water, perhaps becoming the last person to be saved.

When Schwankert and his team tracked down the man’s son in real life, it turned out that he knew almost nothing of what his late father had endured because he never really spoke about it.

Who knew the record-breaking movie would have such a strong connection to Hong Kong?

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