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SURVIVING TWICE

Documentary The Six unravels the untold stories of six Chinese survivors of the most famous maritime disaster of all time – the sinking of the Titanic

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

A still from documentary The Six

Dead silence. A ship’s hull slipping under the waves . Debris and corpses float in the icy water. A lifeboat is rowed through the pitch dark. Rescuers flash lights in search of signs of life.  

“Help, I’m here,” says a Chinese man in Cantonese, weakly. He is spotted clinging to a wooden plank with the last ounce of his fading strength.  

This is a deleted scene from James Cameron’s epic Titanic (1997). The scene was viewed for the first time in The Six, a 2021 documentary about eight Chinese passengers who for more than a century have largely remained absent from the Titanic’s history.  

As executive producer of the documentary, Cameron reveals that the man on the wooden plank, a character based on the experiences of survivor Fang Lang, inspired the film’s iconic scene where heroine Rose (Kate Winslet) hugs the floating door that saves her from the freezing depths.  

When the “unsinkable” ship hit an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912, only 706 out of the 2,224 passengers and crew survived. Most are unaware that among the survivors were six Chinese nationals: Ah Lam, Fang Lang, Ling Hee, Cheong Foo, Chang Chip and Lee Bing. Two other Chinese passengers, Ling Lee and Len Lam, perished.  

These eight Chinese men disappeared from the narrative of the Titanic until The Six, released on April 16 in theaters across China.  

To learn more about them, British documentarian Arthur Jones, along with American author Steven Schwankert and a team of 20 researchers, spent six years on the documentary. They visited more than 20 cities around the world, from Shanghai and London to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Halifax, Nova Scotia.  

The Six tells a story beyond the Titanic: It not only includes the familiar tale of survival but also one of dignity in the face of racism and discrimination that still lingers today.  

Untold Stories 
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.  

The Reenactment 
On the morning of April 10, 1912, the port of Southampton was bustling with passengers and people seeing them off.  

On third-class group ticket No.1601, 17-year-old Fang Lang and seven other Chinese paid 56 pounds and 9 shillings to board the RMS Titanic, the world’s largest ship at the time.  

According to Jones’ research, the eight men, aged between 17 to 37, were professional mariners and not stowaways as was widely reported in newspapers at the time. They had been contracted to work on the Annetta, a freighter that was scheduled to set sail from New York, the Titanic’s destination.  

On April 14 at 11:40pm, four days after leaving Southampton, the Titanic hit an iceberg. 
 
Among the eight Chinese passengers, Cheong Foo was the first aware of the danger and escaped on lifeboat No.13. Records showed that there was an Asian man on the No.13 who was unable to speak English. “This matched Cheong Foo. He could neither speak English nor write Chinese,” Jones said.  

Fang Lang, Ling Lee and Len Lam plunged into the water. The latter two drowned. The other four Chinese passengers survived as they boarded the Titanic’s collapsible lifeboat C.  

News articles from the time on the Titanic’s sinking accused the four Chinese survivors of sneaking onto the lifeboat by dressing in women’s clothing and hiding under the seats. This anti-Chinese narrative corresponded with the racism against overseas Chinese laborers in the West at the time. Over a century later, the accusations lingered.  

“In most of the reports, some passengers only heard that the Chinese men dressed as women but didn’t see it themselves. An Irish boy on the lifeboat who witnessed the scene said ‘Chinese men dressed in black,’ not women’s clothing,” Jones told NewsChina. Jones suggested that the rumor may have stemmed from a misunderstanding: Chinese men at the time wore long queues that could pass for women’s braids.  

Jones found a team to build a replica of collapsible lifeboat C according to its original design and invited volunteers to recreate the scene. The experiment showed it would have been impossible for the four adult men to hide unseen.  

Three stills from documentary The Six

Colder than the Water 
To some extent, what awaited the six Chinese survivors was crueler than the shipwreck. They faced strong anti-Chinese sentiment in the West in the early 20th century, which brought tumultuous changes to their lives.  

Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), a controversial law that banned Chinese from immigrating to the US, the six men were not welcomed and praised as other survivors were. Instead, five were deported within 24 hours of their arrival on Ellis Island, New York City, a major port of immigration. They were forced to board the Annetta, a freighter chartered by the Atlantic Fruit Company, and departed for Cuba the next day.  

Chang Chip, who became extremely ill after the shipwreck, was only allowed to enter the US to receive treatment. Later, Chang was transferred to a hospital in London and eventually died from pneumonia in 1914.  

Four Chinese survivors – Lee Bing, Ah Lam, Cheong Foo and Ling Hee – returned to the UK to work on merchant ships. After World War I broke out, there was a shortage of commercial sailors as British men enlisted to fight. The four worked as seamen until they were forced to leave the country in 1920.  

As Britain languished in a post-war recession, competition for jobs increased, as did anti-immigrant sentiments.  

In response, the UK government issued the Aliens Restriction Act in 1919, which limited employment of foreign residents in Britain and particularly prohibited foreign seamen from working on British ships. The subsequent 1920 Aliens Order made passports obligatory and required all foreigners seeking employment or residence to register with the police or face deportation.  

The policies forced many Chinese men to separate from their wives and children, as many of them had married and started families with British women.  

Father and Son 
Among the survivors, Fang Lang’s story is the most complete.  

After he was deported to Cuba, Fang worked on the Annetta for eight years. From there, Fang illegally entered the US and changed his name to Fong Wing Sun. He ran a restaurant and then a tailor shop before working as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Wisconsin. He retired at 80 years old.  

Fong became a US citizen in his 60s, which enabled him to not only sponsor the immigration of relatives but also legally marry. He wed a woman 40 years his junior from Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, securing her a green card. The couple had a troubled relationship and eventually divorced when their only son, Tom Fong, was five years old.  

Tom Fong said he witnessed his father deal with racism and discrimination. In the documentary, he recalled that his father had punched a man in the face after he called them derogatory names.  

For his entire life, Fong senior kept his near-death experience aboard the Titanic from his wife and son. He only alluded to it to his nephew and a few friends, but did not mention the ship’s name. Fong died in 1985 at the age of 90. It was not until nearly two decades after his death that Tom Fong learned about his father’s story and his previous name from a cousin.  

Jones suggested that Fong senior’s reluctance to share his story may have stemmed from concerns over his immigration history. “Perhaps he feared that his past would bring some trouble to his family if he told the truth,” the director told NewsChina.  

Jones and his team were unsure whether Fong Wing Sun was the same Fang Lang until they visited Fong’s hometown of Taishan, a coastal city in southern China’s Guangdong Province. Jones and researchers met with Fong’s relatives there. Over the years, Fong exchanged letters with his relatives and often sent money.  

One of Fong’s letters yielded a significant find – a poem he wrote about surviving a shipwreck – “The sky was high and the ocean wide / I was in the water and a piece of wood saved my life / There were three or four friends on the lifeboat / We wiped the tears away as we laughed.”  

The poem was the final puzzle piece to Fang Lang’s story.  

Jones and Schwankert also pursued information about the two Chinese passengers who perished – Ling Lee and Len Lam. They learned that after the wreck, four Canadian vessels had been dispatched to retrieve bodies. More than 100 of the victims are buried at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Records showed that among them was a Japanese.  

Jones and Schwankert visited the cemetery. “There was only one Japanese passenger on the Titanic and he survived. So if it was really an East Asian man who was buried there, then he would have been one of our two Chinese victims,” Jones told NewsChina.  

For Jones, shooting The Six was a starkly different experience from his usual productions. The production team needed to unravel mysteries by conducting experiments and simulations. “I’ve always said that this time our model was not a historical documentary but rather a suspense story,” Jones said. 

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