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Story of 6 Chinese survivors on the Titanic surfaces in The Six

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Writer

The last person rescued from the Titanic shipwreck in 1912 was a Chinese man. Let that fact sink in. How could we not know that? That man boarded the RMS Carpathia, but he and five other Chinese survivors didn’t get off in New York City like the rest of the survivors. This is how the documentary The Six begins.

The Six is a meandering and somewhat personal documentary. It is frustratingly low on content, but it is also a testament to racism in three countries (the US, UK, and Canada). In addition, it illustrates how history is lost and racist attitudes have impacted what we know. 

The names of eight Chinese sailors who boarded the Titanic are on the alien passenger list: 

  • Ali Lam
  • Fang Lang
  • Len Lam
  • Cheng Foo
  • Chang Chip
  • Ling Hee
  • Lee Bing
  • Lee Ling

Hindered by romanized names, without the defining characters to differentiate them from others, the researchers faced daunting tasks. Besides finding out who they were, the team asks, why they survived. The film’s investigative team uses both schematic drawings along with a computer-generated model to walk aboard the Titanic. Once they did that, they consider the main reason why the six cannot disembark: The US Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. 

I’ve watched The Six four times and each time it has left me with angry tears.  This is the journey of the lead researcher, Steven Schwankert, who has spent 22 years in China. He previously discovered the fate of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Poseidon and wrote a book (Poseidon: China’s Secret Salvage of Britain’s Lost Submarine and a documentary film The Poseidon Project). His team found wooden shipwrecks in Mongolia’s Lake Khovsgol.  Schwankert was in China in 1998 when the film Titanic was released.

While the documentary doesn’t mention it, that’s just a year after Hong Kong reverted to China.

The film Titanic swept the world with a romantic vision that knew no borders. The director of the Titanic, James Cameron, pops up early in The Six. Cameron notes his film was the untold story of the Titanic because most films focused on the “glittery high society–That was the story that was told; that was the story that was enshrined.”

Cameron feels that the third-class passengers had bigger stories because they had bigger dreams. He was aware of the presence of the Chinese and one of the scenes cut from his film is about the Chinese man who was on top of a floating object. That Chinese man was the inspiration for the last scene between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Titanic where Jack is dying of hypothermia and sinks down while Rose is alive on top of the floating board. 

To learn a little more about that night, Schwankert himself tries an experiment, submerging himself in water nearly as cold as the water would have been and showing scientifically and describing anecdotally the experience.  He does other experiments as well. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act also influenced the narrative about the Chinese survivors. The six were portrayed as cowards. They supposedly hid aboard the lifeboat or they pretended to be women. Schwankert’s team tackles those accusations.  

Still one hardly forgets a near-death experience like surviving where too many died, crying piteously until their cries were silenced under the waves of the freezing sea. One man would write a poem. Another less fortunate passenger would wash ashore to be buried in Canada, a country that did not welcome the Chinese. Canada had its own exclusion laws. In the UK, things were different but racism still affected the lives of the Chinese and their families.

If the Titanic is the “alpha and the omega of shipwrecks,” and the Chinese were there, they were part of history, and that history is mostly lost. The Six reminds us we are losing pieces of history every day and that already too much of history has been erased by racism.

In James Cameron’s Titanic, the contemporary crew was looking for a treasure but discovered a story. In The Six, the researchers searched for a story and discovered a literary gem: A Chinese poem written by a survivor. Some day perhaps this poem and the poems written on the walls of Angel Island by the Chinese immigrants will be incorporated into American literature just as the Titanic survivor’s poem in Chinese should be part of Titanic history, a history shared by the US, the UK and Canada.  

For future screenings of The Six, visit the official website. There will be a virtual screening of The Six January 22-28, 2022, as part of the Friday Harbor Film Festival.

For the longer review and the poem in traditional Chinese characters with romanization, visit AgeOfTheGeek.org.

天高海阔浪波波

一条棍子救生我

兄弟一起有几个

莫干眼泪笑呵呵

English Translation:

Sky high, sea wide, waves churn and flip. 

My life was saved by a wooden stick. 

A few friends I find still alive. 

Wipe away sadness and laugh with delight.

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