The ‘completely unknown’ story behind Titanic sinking

Olivia Lambert
·News Editor
·4-min read

The "completely unknown" story about the sinking of the Titanic and the myths that burdened some survivors have been uncovered in a new documentary. 

The Six explores the story of six Chinese men who survived the sinking of the world's most famous ship in 1912, giving a voice, life and faces to those forgotten among 700 other survivors. 

Director Arthur Jones said six years ago long-time friend and researcher Steven Schwankert said they should do a documentary on the Chinese Titanic story, focused on those who survived and were slandered. 

Jones said his immediate reaction was, "There were Chinese people on Titanic?"

A black and white photograph from 1912 of the RMS Titanic.
The Titanic sank in 1912 after it hit an iceberg. Source: Getty

"It's a sentence I've heard a lot in the years since, pretty much every time we have told people about the film we are working on," he said in a director's statement.

"And it is a fact that no one seemed to know about the Chinese on board the most famous shipwreck of all time that spurred us on to finish what at times seemed like an impossible task."

After mentioning the documentary idea to Chinese friends, Jones knew there was a story yet to be uncovered.

"They were just amazed that there's this completely unknown story from Titanic, it just seemed an extraordinary thing," he said.

Chinese survivors 'met with suspicion'

Eight Chinese were aboard the fateful vessel, in third class, when it sank after hitting an iceberg. Six, most of them sailors but not working on the Titanic, made it out alive on life rafts.

With 700 survivors escaping the sinking of the Titanic with their lives, the six Chinese men coping with the trauma of the disaster were dealt another devastating blow when they arrived on dry land. 

A black and white picture of Fang Lang, one of the six Chinese men, dressed in a suit and tie.
Fang Lang was one the six Chinese men who survived the Titanic sinking. Source: Lost Pensivos Films

"Arriving in New York with the other survivors, the six were met not with compassion, but suspicion and slander," The Six documentary said.

"Less than 24 hours later, they were expelled from the country, soon forgotten, and lost beneath the waves of time.

"What became of them? The answer is the story of so many like them, who travel thousands of miles from their homes in search of better lives, only to be met by hostility, hysteria and walls at the border.

"The Six is an extraordinary story of survival and dignity in the face of racism and anti-immigrant policy that still reverberates today."

Horrific rumours about Chinese survivors

Jones said in his director's statement that almost all of the survivors were well known, or at least their country of origin was. 

"When I was a child, we lived opposite the house of an elderly woman who had survived Titanic," he said.

"Everyone knew about her. If you check online now, you can find her year of birth, her children, the story of her life, her story on Titanic. And the same is true of all the other survivors. Except our six men."

A newspaper excerpt of a story detailing the Chinese men's alleged behaviour to get on a lifeboat.
The Chinese survivors were accused of disguising themselves as women to get a place in lifeboats. Source: Lost Pensivos Films

Jones said the more they researched the stories of the six men, they discovered rumours had been published in both British and US media in 1912 suggesting the six Chinese men dishonourably saved themselves.

"But were those terrible accusations – that they had dressed as women to get places on lifeboats, that they had hidden, or were stowaways – to do with the discrimination that an entire generation of Chinese faced as they went out into the world to work, and settle?" he questioned.

"The story just seemed to get bigger and bigger, and the task of sorting out fact from fiction at times seemed insurmountable."

Scene cut from original Titanic

James Cameron, who won best director and best picture at the Oscars for his 1997 smash-hit Titanic, was fully supportive of the documentary and allowed Jones to show a scene which was not included in the cinema version of the blockbuster.

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.

As they delved further into what became of the six men, word spread of their project, drawing more people to come forward with information. Even now fresh details are coming to light.

A strong element of the film is the prejudice that Chinese immigrant workers like the seamen faced as they sought new lives in the West.

Jones said in his statement he hoped the film was a tribute to a whole generation of Chinese "whose suffering lasted a lifetime".

The film premiered in China on April 16 with worldwide dates yet to be announced. 

with AFP

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