The last person rescued from the Titanic shipwreck on 15 April 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–a testament to racism in three countries (the US, UK and Canada)–and yet illustrates how history is lost and racist attitudes have authored what we know.
The names of nationality of the passengers in this case are easily found. On the alien passenger list were the names of eight Chinese sailors:
- 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 task of finding these people is daunting. Besides finding out who they were, the team asks, why they survived. The film’s investigative team of investigators attempt to discover why by looking at the plans of the Titanic and then, by using a computer generated model to walk aboard the Titanic. Once they’ve figured that out, they consider the reasons 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. Directed by Arthur Jones and produced by Luo Tong (with executive producer James Cameron), this film is the journey of lead researcher, marine historian 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 years preceding 1997, the UK was contemplating what to do about the Hong Kong Chinese. Remember how the British got into China and the Opium Wars where the British defended their right to sell opium obtained in India to the Chinese.
While the Opium Wars brought bitter returns and a legacy of drug problems worldwide, the “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 had bigger stories and 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 and Jack in Titanic where Jack is dead, having died of hypothermia and Rose is alive on top of a door.
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 prejudices allowed that the exclusion act and other anti-Asian laws to pass also influenced the narrative about the Chinese survivors–they were cowards. They hid aboard the lifeboat, they pretended to be women. Schwankert’s team tackles those accusations by building a replica of a lifeboat and trying to recreate those claims. Refuting those claims, one must remember that other men were haunted by unjust accusations such as Joseph Bruce Ismay, former chairman of the White Star Line, and the only Japanese passenger, Masabumi Hosono, a Japanese civil servant. He was the only Japanese passenger on the ship and was held to account for not upholding the Western “women and children first” ethos. There was also a matter of which lifeboat he was on. And then there was the racism he faced and wrote about–he was sent to the lower decks while other White passengers of his class were not. He had to brush pass a crew member because the crew assumed he was third class.
The team also wonders what forces drove these men from the United Kingdom? Where could they possibly hope to go? The factor is economics. As the team follows the trail of these men, they find that the Chinese were often shifted about as a result of, not their personal economic hopes and dreams, but because their hopes could be exploited.
Still one hardly forgets a near death experience like surviving where to many died, crying piteously until their cries were silenced under the waves of the freezing sea. One man would wash ashore to be buried in Canada, a country that did not welcome the Chinese. Canada had its own exclusion laws.
Yet when Europe would become embroiled in a war, the Chinese sailors would be called upon again as the British sailors were drafted in to the navy. While anti-miscegenation laws existed in the US and prevented the Chinese from marrying White women (but not Black or Native Americans), Canada and the UK never enacted any anti-miscegenation laws. The Chinese sailors in Liverpool helped with the war effort (some of whom were transported from China to Canada and then across Canada and then to the UK), and some of them had lovers and some of them even married and had families. But once they were of no use to the British, the Chinese sailors were forcibly repatriated. I’m tempted to say shanghai’ed, but perhaps even that verbal use of a city name is based on racism as well.
- Chinese Labour Corps.
- Timeline of Chinese Canadian History
- Chinese Immigration Act, 1923
- Chinese Immigration Act
- Compulsory repatriation of undesirable Chinese seamen
- The Secret Deportation: How Britain Betrayed the Chinese Men who Served the County in the War
This issue of secret and forced deportation alone re-writes the conversations in the UK during the 1990s about the Hong Kong Chinese and Great Britain’s responsibility toward them before the reversion in 1997. Many of us didn’t have this contextual knowledge and how racism influence previous governmental policies.
The documentary won’t revisit accusations of racism on the part of the Officer Harold Lowe. This is mentioned in both the Encyclopedia Titanica and the recent Huffington Post article, “Here’s Why You’ve Never Heard of the Titanic’s Chinese Survivors” (18 April 2018).
What the documentary’s researchers found is confusion (too many people with the same name), graves, paper sons, some descendants (including Yvonne Foley who is the descendant of one of those forcibly repatriated sailors) and even a poem. The poem is not unlike those 200 some poems carved into the walls of Angel Island by Chinese detainees. I wonder if at the very least in California shouldn’t require these Angel Island poets to be heard and include the poem discovered in the documentary as well in the required curriculum at public schools.
The Chinese sailors were lower in status than the White people in third class. Their story wasn’t told in Cameron’s blockbuster. The story of the Chinese contributions during World War I or II to the economy of Great Britain is one of those untold stories of war. And by not knowing the story of the Chinese, people in the UK, the US and Canada, people can believe that their nations were built and defended without the Chinese. Cameron cites the bitter irony of Chinese being part of the workers who built the US transcontinental railroad that helped grow the US economy and yet once that mission was accomplished, the Chinese see the opportunities in the US closed to them.
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” helps preserve snippets of the story that has almost been erased by racism. At the end, the documentary reminds the viewers that the US Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and Canada’s Chinese Exclusion laws were repealed in 1947 and there has been no official apology from the British government for secret repatriation of Chinese sailors after both world wars.
This is an unsettling film that 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 found discovered a story. In “The Six,” the researchers searched for a story and discovered a literary gem: A Chinese poem written by a survivor. Here, the documentary reminds us that in places like Angel Island, there are literary treasures we have in the hundreds of poems left by Chinese immigrants. Some day perhaps they will be incorporated into American literature just as the Titanic survivor poem in Chinese should be part of Titanic history, a history shared by the US, the UK and Canada. The narrative of Whiteness needs to be re-written and one hopes future films will recognize the lives and contributions of people of color as this documentary does.
For future screenings of “The Six,” visit the official website.
By Fong Wingsun (方荣山)
Tiān gāohǎikuò làng bō bō
Yītiáo gùnzi jiùshēng wǒ
Xiōngdì yīqǐ yǒu jǐ gè
Mò gān yǎnlèi xiào hēhē
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.