It was in 2014 that Jones first heard about the story of Chinese passengers on the Titanic from his old friend Schwankert, an American maritime historian and longtime China resident.
“About 700 of Titanic’s 2,200 passengers survived. We have records on the identity of almost all of the survivors. We know their names, nationalities and family relations. But as for these six Chinese survivors, it seemed that no one had a clue about them,” Jones told NewsChina.
Born in Yorkshire, England, Jones has lived in China for 25 years. He initially worked as a China-based reporter for Variety magazine, mainly covering the Chinese film industry. For the past 15 years, Jones has worked as a documentary director based out of Shanghai, shooting projects for the BBC, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. In 2013, Jones, his brother Luther and Schwankert co-directed The Poseidon Project, a documentary about the search for a British submarine that sank after a collision off China’s coast in 1931.
“Since I’ve already made a maritime disaster documentary, it seemed a bit repetitive for me if I did another one. And the story of the Titanic was so well known that I wasn’t sure whether I could do something new with it,” Jones said.
Jones bounced the idea off his Chinese friends. Most were not only curious about the topic but also unaware that Chinese were on the Titanic. Their enthusiasm rekindled the director’s interest. “Maybe it was really a good topic. I could also explore more issues through a new Titanic story, such as racism, human nature and father-son relationships,” Jones said.
The project posed major challenges. No survivors were alive at the time of production, the last being a British woman who died in 2009 at the age of 97. Since overseas Chinese laborers of the early 1900s often lived in extreme poverty and did not settle down, it was likely they did not have descendants.
Jones gave his research team three to six months to investigate whether the project was feasible. At the time, all they had to go on were two yellowing documents: One was a ticket listing the eight Chinese passengers’ names and ages, and the other listed the six who survived.
One name on the ticket drew the team’s attention. At first glance, the name handwritten in cursive appears to read “Ali Lam.” However, Jones and his researchers posited it was more likely “Ah Lam,” suggesting he came from southern China. In Cantonese, Hakka, Chaozhou and other southern dialects, adding the syllable “Ah” to a given name is a common way to create a nickname.
“We all found this extremely interesting. It gave us a glimpse of hope that we really could do something new beyond what we had on hand,” Jones said.
Then came another breakthrough. On a Titanic-related online forum, the team found that years ago a user named “Tom K Fong” claimed that he was the son of the Chinese survivor Fang Lang. But the account had been deleted. Jones and his team were determined to find him. Their strategy: sending emails addressed to “Tom K Fong” at a slew of different domains in the hope that one would hit. They got a reply two weeks later from a Tom Fong, a Chinese American living in Janesville, Wisconsin.
After meeting with Fong and collecting more information, Jones and his team confirmed that Fong was Fang Lang’s son. Jones decided to shoot the documentary.