Titanic Documentary ‘The Six’ Spotlights The Chinese Survivors The World Forgot
The Titanic‘s sinking is one of the most notorious and well-documented maritime disasters in the world. Academics and enthusiasts alike have studied the doomed vessel for over a century, meticulously compiling every detail for the historic record.
Yet as scrutinised as the shipwreck is, up until now there were at least six stories that still hadn’t been told.
“The story of The Six is a part of a well-known historical event, but it was hidden and twisted deliberately, due to political influence at the time,” Tong told Mashable via email.
Unfortunately, it isn’t an easy tale. Societal racism and xenophobic government policies made being on the Titanic not necessarily the worst thing to happen to its surviving Chinese passengers. And over a century later, the bigotry they faced still continues to persist.
On 14 April 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg during its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City, sinking over the course of almost three hours. Hundreds of passengers were plunged into 28 degree Fahrenheit water, with only 710 of the 2224 passengers and crew aboard the 269-metre (882.5 foot) ocean-liner ultimately surviving.
Among the survivors were six of the eight Chinese men aboard, all of whom had been travelling in steerage and wouldn’t have been prioritised for a seat on the Titanic‘s limited lifeboats.
Considering the odds, the fact of their survival was miraculous. Yet the mere existence of people of colour aboard the Titanic will already be a surprise to many viewers. The Titanic‘s sinking is commonly viewed through the lens of class, and the stark difference between how first- and third-class passengers were treated has been well documented. The role race played in deciding what parts of Titanic‘s story were remembered is less widely acknowledged.
“The peculiarity of Titanic‘s entire narrative is that it portrays the events of that night through a racial lens,” said social historian Cheng Wei in the documentary. “The narrative has various motives. In order to elevate the ‘Anglo-Saxon race,’ there must be an ‘other.'”
In this case, the “other” were the eight Chinese men, whose names are listed in historical records as Ali Lam, Chang Chip, Lee Bing, Lee Ling, Cheong Foo, Ling Hee, Fang Lang, and Len Lam. The imperfect English transliteration of their Chinese names was one of many barriers researchers encountered when trying to uncover what became of the men, who all but disappeared from history after the Chinese Exclusion Act refused them entry to the U.S. with Titanic‘s other survivors. Instead, they were escorted directly aboard the Annetta and sent to Cuba.
“They were mistreated not just in the days following the Titanic disaster,” said Tong. “They were living under the shadow of discrimination their whole lives; even their families now are affected by that.”
Very little was known about the ship’s Chinese passengers. Even Titanic enthusiasts were resigned to the fact that their stories would likely remain a mystery. What information could be gleaned was largely from offhand mentions in other peoples’ stories, which The Six determines were further filtered through the racist, resentful sentiment that the Chinese men had survived at the expense of deserving white women.
The Six manages to track down what happened to most of the men with varying levels of certainty, as well as put these century-old rumours to rest.
“You don’t get a lot of chances to correct bits of the Titanic record, and I think we have finally done that, and we have finally given these men a chance to show that they weren’t cowards. They were just guys who wanted to survive,” said lead researcher Steven Schwankert. “And they had that right.”
Regardless of how it came together, The Six was always going to be a fascinating story. Yet while the documentary is ostensibly about the Titanic, it is quick to discern how each of the Chinese men most likely survived the disaster. The events aboard the ship only take up a fraction of The Six‘s almost two hours of screen time, including its executive producer James Cameron noting that a significant scene in his 1997 blockbuster Titanic was inspired by the survivor recorded as Fang Lang.
Rather than focusing exclusively on the Titanic, it would be more accurate to say that The Six is about how the men survived after the tragedy, and the history of Chinese immigration to Western countries.
“There’s a lot to be answered for, and a lot of history to be reckoned with,” said researcher Matthew Baren in the documentary.
The pivotal events in The Six occurred over 100 years ago, and work on the documentary began in 2015. Yet its examination of anti-Asian racism and xenophobic government policies has only become more relevant today, as racist rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus pandemic fuels a surge of violence against Asians in 2021.
This March, advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate documented in just the first two months of the year. Actual numbers are , as such crimes are . However, while it has been more visible in the past year or so, anti-Asian sentiment has shamefully persisted for centuries.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was only abolished in 1943, after which a quota of just 105 Chinese immigrants were allowed into the U.S. per year. Across the Atlantic, to China from Britain in the late 1940s, separating families against their will. Chinese people were only permitted to immigrate to the U.S. in significant numbers after 1965 — 53 years after the Titanic sank.
Government policies such as these shaped the lives of Titanic‘s six Chinese survivors long after that catastrophic night, dictating where they went and contributing to the difficulty researchers have had in finding them. A more subtle theme throughout The Six is secrecy, as some Chinese immigrants kept their histories even from their own families in order to avoid government detection, keep their head down, and continue moving forward.
“We had some people come to us that we strongly suspect are descendants of survivors, but whose stories we had to give up on telling,” Tong told Mashable. “Some of the older family members somehow still associate the story with feelings of shame — and they weren’t comfortable sharing it in public. We hope over time they might change their minds!”
From a certain point of view, The Six is a hopeful story about unlikely survival in the face of adversity, and triumph over the odds. Yet at the same time, surviving is not the same as thriving. We have the right to demand more, both then and now.
“As filmmakers, we hope our effort in telling this story will shine a light on people who have lost hope, who are still suffering from mistreatment, who are living under the shadow of shame,” said Tong, reflecting on the impact of The Six‘s events now. “We hope it can help people find courage and confidence to defy injustice.”
The Six premiered in China on April 16, 109 years and one day after the Titanic sank. It is currently awaiting international release.
Source: AMANDA YEO