In the early hours of April 15, 1912, a lifeboat navigated the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, its skeleton crew scanning the dark, debris-littered surface for any sign of life. Hours earlier, the unthinkable had happened: The RMS Titanic, a majestic ocean liner deemed “unsinkable,” had struck an iceberg and slowly disappeared into the sea on its maiden voyage.
Hundreds of passengers fled in lifeboats. Hundreds more perished, going down with the ship or freezing to death in the icy water. The only one of Titanic’s lifeboats to turn back to the wreckage found body after body — until it discovered a young Chinese man, still alive, clinging to a piece of wood.
That man would be one of six Chinese passengers who survived the Titanic, a little-known fact about the historic disaster that has largely remained untold or distorted, owing to a racially hostile environment toward Chinese people in the West at the turn of the 20th century.
Now, the lives of these men — who they were, how they survived that fateful night and why they were barred from entering the United States — are being examined in a new documentary, “The Six,” by Arthur Jones and Steven Schwankert.
“There were something like 700 Titanic survivors. They’ve all been so ‘claimed,’ if all the claims to be believed,” Jones, a Shanghai-based filmmaker, told The Washington Post. “These were the only guys amongst those 700 that no one had ever claimed. They just completely disappeared. Why did they get ignored?”
On April 10, 1912, the Titanic set off on her maiden voyage to the United States from Southampton, England, with 2,229 passengers and crew members. The ship was supposed to arrive a week later at its transatlantic destination: New York City.
Instead, around 11:30 p.m. on April 14, the Titanic struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland and began to take on water. Within hours, the massive ocean liner had cleaved in two and — with hundreds still trapped on board — was swallowed by the frigid waters of what is now known as “Iceberg Alley.”
About 1,500 people died in the tragedy. About 700 passengers survived and were plucked from their lifeboats by the RMS Carpathia the next morning.
The ill-fated voyage has been immortalized in countless documentaries, books and museums — and in the tin-whistled opening bars of a certain Celine Dion song now indelibly associated with the shipwreck, thanks to James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film. (Be honest: The tune is in your head as you read this.)
Over the past century, volumes have been written about hundreds of the Titanic’s victims and survivors, their life stories preserved in astonishing detail by history books and their descendants. However, for six Chinese passengers who survived the sinking, their ties to the Titanic have all but vanished.
Schwankert first brought up the possibility of a Titanic project to Jones in 2014. Jones dismissed the idea at first. For starters, the longtime documentary partners were in the midst of another project.
But also: It was the Titanic, Schwankert recalled Jones saying.
“Everything’s been done,” Schwankert said they thought. “There’s nothing new to say about it. And this was not so long after the 100th anniversary” of the 1912 voyage.
Still, he pressed on. The New Jersey native, who has lived in China for 22 years, had recently researched the Titanic and come across a brief mention of six Chinese survivors. But the more he tried to find out about the six, the more dead ends he hit.
“It really started to bother me. Like, why don’t we know?” Schwankert said. “Like any history project, you start pulling the threads, and it just seemed like the thread didn’t lead anywhere.”
Before long, he had persuaded Jones to abandon their original project and launch “The Six.”
With little to go on at first but the passenger manifest and list of survivors, the team set up a simple website, whoarethesix.com, to crowdsource tips. The invisibility of the six Chinese survivors is such that, even in China, Jones and Schwankert find themselves telling people: Yes, there were, in fact, Chinese passengers on the Titanic.
Eight Chinese nationals boarded the ship at Southampton, to be exact. Their names appear in rigid cursive on a single ticket for third-class passengers: Ah Lam, Fang Lang, Len Lam, Cheong Foo, Chang Chip, Ling Hee, Lee Bing and Lee Ling.
Through two years of painstaking documentation, the filmmakers determined that the men in the group probably knew one another beforehand, having worked together as professional sailors on various ships in Britain. Because of an ongoing coal strike there, the men were being transferred by their company to a freighter docked in New York, the Annetta, which was to take them to Cuba.
“The reason they were traveling on Titanic in the first place is for work,” Schwankert said. “They were professional mariners, and they were being seconded from their company in the U.K. to go and work on the companies in North America.”
Their trip would not go as planned, of course.
How the eight men responded as the Titanic began taking on water may never be known. They would have been traveling in steerage, the lowest class of cabins, where the survival rate for non-British men was only about 20 percent.
What was documented is that one of the Chinese men was later found clinging to a large piece of floating wood by the one main lifeboat that chose to return to the wreckage to search for signs of life. Five others escaped in lifeboats. Notably, four were in “Collapsible C,” a backup escape vessel with canvas siding that was one of the last lifeboats to be lowered from the ship.
They happened to share the same lifeboat as Joseph Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic. Ismay, who was later pilloried for saving himself instead of going down with the ship despite being such a high-ranking official, testified in official inquiries that “four Chinamen were in the boat” in which he had escaped. The ship’s quartermaster, George T. Rowe, was on “Collapsible C” as well and also testified to the presence of the Chinese passengers, though he suggested they had “found” the four men “between the seats” only at daybreak.
Schwankert noted that the official testimony was instrumental in getting their research started on the Chinese survivors.
“Let me put it this way: I view the Chinese passengers as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Titanic,” Schwankert said. “They’re not major characters. But they pop up at really opportune moments in the story. … In the beginning, Ismay’s testimony was really some of the only information that we had that even verified that they even existed.”
Even after the Carpathia arrived in New York on April 18, 1912, the troubles for the six Chinese men were not over. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, the group of survivors was not permitted to enter the United States. They were instead forced to board the Annetta, their intended ship of transfer, and the next day departed the country, bound for fruit ships in the Caribbean.
This is where Jones and Schwankert diverge slightly in their interpretation of how the Chinese survivors were treated. Schwankert acknowledged that the Chinese Exclusion Act — the only law in U.S. history to explicitly exclude a group on the basis of ethnicity — prevented the men from entering the country, but he noted that they were always meant to transfer to the Annetta and move on south.
However, Jones pointed out that other survivors were allowed to bypass screening at Ellis Island or received medical aid because of the trauma they had just experienced. The Chinese men were not.
“Do we call it deportation, or do we just say they were in transit?” Jones asks. “I think if we call it in transit, we miss that … they were not treated humanely. We know they lost close friends on board. And yet they weren’t given the option of staying. Not only did they have to leave in 24 hours on board [the Annetta], they were held overnight in custody. They were detained.”
Both agree that the attitude toward Chinese and other Asian minorities then was hostile, as evidenced in the tone of the few newspaper articles that mention them at the time. For instance, in an unsourced April 19, 1912, Brooklyn Daily Eagle article headlined “Heroism of Anglo-Saxon Sailors Stands Out in Disaster,” the Chinese passengers are described as almost inhuman and regarded with the utmost suspicion.
“The one dark spot is the fact that in the bottom of one lifeboat which left the Titanic were found, wedged beneath the seats, the bodies of two dead Chinese coolies and eight living ones,” the article stated. “They were creatures on their way to New York to join a sailing ship for the Orient, and who, at the first sign of danger, had sprung into the lifeboats … They were trampled upon by the women who were lowered into the boats later, and two of them crushed to death.”
The questionable passenger count notwithstanding, Schwankert said there is no evidence that the men stowed away or took the place of women and children on “Collapsible C,” which was not filled when it was discovered. In fact, the documentary team’s efforts include building a life-size replica of “Collapsible C” to prove that it would have been impossible for four men to hide at all, let alone overnight.
“The other news articles that you read about the Chinese men, there is this sense that they were somehow not entitled to seats on lifeboats,” Schwankert said. “Ismay was called a coward or certainly painted as a coward for not going down with the ship and for taking a place in the lifeboat. But there was another first-class gentleman in collapsible lifeboat C. … He gets in the boat and he basically gets off scot-free. No one ever criticizes him for surviving.”
It has taken more than two years for Jones and Schwankert, with a team of about a half-dozen researchers, to fact-check every detail they can find about the lives of the six survivors. Their research and interviews have taken them to London, Liverpool, both coasts of the United States, Cuba, the Caribbean, Canada and back to China. Against the odds, they have been able to track down several descendants of the six men — many of whom had never connected their relatives to the historic disaster.
“The Titanic is such a weird thing to study when you get into it because, on the one hand, there is so much information out there about the Titanic,” Schwankert said. “Not just sort of general info but also misinformation — but then there’s also some incredible detail out there that various people have put together. Then you come up with a specific question like ours … and there’s nothing.”
(Cameron, to his credit, filmed a scene in “Titanic” in which a Chinese man is rescued from a wooden plank in the water. It was later deleted, though the clip can be found in the director’s cut and on YouTube. Cameron’s representative said Tuesday that he was in the middle of a film shoot and could not immediately respond to an interview request.)
“The Six” documentary is in production and is to be released this year or next.
“The most important thing is that they’re given their rightful place in history,” Schwankert said. He also hopes that the documentary will “prove that they were not cowards, that they didn’t live at the expense of others who didn’t survive.”
In a sense, he added, the Titanic is just a small part of the story for these men, who probably hailed from Guangdong province in China and now have descendants across the world.
“The great thing about their stories is that they cut across such a huge swath of issues for the Chinese diaspora at the turn of the 20th century,” Schwankert said. “The fact that these men went on and ended up in all these diverse places, I think it shows a lot of the political currents and economic currents of the time. To be honest, for them, surviving the Titanic was not necessarily the biggest obstacle in their life. It was just one moment of adversity that they had to face in a lifetime of adversity.”