More than a century ago, the largest and most luxurious luxury liner to ever set sail at the time hit an iceberg one dark April night, leading the ship to sink into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. More than 1,500 people lost their lives in the accident, making it one of deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in modern history.
Two decades ago, a Hollywood movie that took the disaster as the setting for a cross-class romance made waves in numerous countries and regions to become the highest-grossing film of all time.
Yes, the Titanic. Everyone knows the story of this ill-fated luxury liner yet few people know the story of the six Chinese passengers who managed to survive the disaster.
Directed by British filmmaker Arthur Jones, the up-coming documentary The Six has been capturing attention around the world for the way it reveals this history and changes the way people look at this century-old incident.
Vilified for surviving
“We all think we know about Titanic already and yet in the middle of the whole thing there is a huge mystery,” Jones told the Global Times on Thursday.
“They were treated very differently from everybody else. They were singled out, they had to leave in 24 hours, they weren’t given any options…in the media there were treated very badly.”
Beginning research on the history of the Chinese survivors around three years ago, Jones and his team noted that eight Chinese sailors boarded the Titanic with their names written on a single ticket – a typical practice for third-class passengers at the time. They appeared to be from Guangdong Province and ranged from 24 to 37 years old.
Six of the eight survived after the iceberg crash, with four of them escaping onto an unwanted broken boat, one making it to a lifeboat and another avoiding death by tying himself to a floating door. This last lucky survivor, identified as Fang Lang, was picked up by the only lifeboat that went back for rescue.
“Fang Lang behaved very brave and helpful after the rescue and helped to row the boat,” explained Jones.
However, fortune ceased to smile on the six men after that. Right after they lost two of their friends and a narrow escape from death, they were turned away at Ellis Island the very next day under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which didn’t end until 1943.
Moreover, given the overall low survival rate of passengers and the priority given to women and children for the lifeboats, the Chinese passengers’ survival attracted suspicion and criticism from the media. Biased coverage labeled them as despicable individuals who resorted to unscrupulous behavior in order to survive, making them the only group of survivors from the deadly disaster who were disrespected and hated by the public.
According to the Huffington Post, a 1912 article from the Brooklyn Eagle referred them as “creatures” and “coolies” and claimed that some of them were “found, wedged beneath the seats” of the lifeboats. Other common claims included that they “dressed as women” to get on the lifeboats.
Responding to the claims against the six men, Jones pointed out they were nothing but groundless “rumors.”
“We went back to the basics and looked at every piece of evidence when anyone mentioned anything about the Chinese, and found the evidence didn’t support the idea that they did really bad things,” Jones said, adding that media reports from the time served certain racist stereotype.
Revealing the truth
To set this twisted history straight, Jones and his team worked hard to track down the six Chinese men’s descendants and relatives. They traveled through the US, UK, Canada and China, following in the footsteps of the six Chinese men after they vanished from Titanic history.
According to Jones, the sailors worked and settled down in different parts of the world but most still maintained strong connections to their homeland. However, instead of making their voices heard, they chose to keep in silent about their experience, not even revealing much to their families.
“It surprised me how little their decedents knew about it. It was one of the things they didn’t talk about at home,” he said.
However, Jones believes that the six men should be remembered and celebrated for what they did and that it is important to reveal the Chinese connection to the Titanic story as the six men’s story has a strong “representative power” that reflects the lives of early Chinese immigrants to the US.
“They were on board the Titanic because they were doing what so many Chinese, men especially, did at that time, which was to use their muscles and brains and their bravery to travel across the world and work in different places and learn things. To help their families to get richer,” he said.
Jones’ work has received great attention and increasing support from the public, with many volunteers from different countries offering their help. The documentary’s trailer received millions of hits on Sina Weibo and the film has been the topic of constant discussion on Chinese social media platforms. The team has also launched a website as well as Sina Weibo and Facebook pages so that people can provide any information they may know about the six men.
Concerning remarks by Chinese netizens who wondered why a British filmmaker was telling a Chinese story. Jones noted that he feels that his background shouldn’t matter as this is a human story that goes beyond nationality or race.
The team is preparing to continue filming in Taishan, Guangdong Province. Jones estimates that the documentary will be released by the end of the year, followed by a book written by the team’s chief researcher Steven Schwankert.
The 2018 Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) annual conference is scheduled for April 8 to 11 in Boao, Hainan Province. The forum will be themed "An Open and Innovative Asia for a World of Greater Prosperity."
— The Daily Mail - People's Daily