Americans know April 15 as tax day. But 107 years ago, it was a day that shocked the world.
At 2:20 a.m., April 15, 1912, the largest and most luxurious ocean liner of the time (and considered “unsinkable” by many because of its compartmentalized hull construction), sank into the depths of the North Atlantic Ocean. Of the 2,200 people on board, eight were Chinese. Of the 706 who survived, six of the eight Chinese made it.
These six Chinese survivors of the RMS Titanic tragedy disappeared soon after their arrival in New York.
There has been much coverage of the Titanic story by the global media, but nothing was reported of the Chinese passengers. Of the hundreds other survivors who were interviewed by the press for their survival tales, none paid attention to the six Chinese.
Arthur Jones, a British documentarian whose production company is based in Shanghai, was intrigued. Why was nothing ever reported of the Chinese passengers while “every little detail, right down to the size of the ashtrays in second class,” had been written? “Why were they ignored?” Jones asked.
With help of other historians and researchers, longtime documentary partners Jones and U.S. maritime historian Steven Schwankert set out to uncover the stories of these Chinese Titanic survivors. The project took the team to Britain, Canada, China, Hong Kong and the U.S. to track down the six survivors’ descendants. However, the project, like the Titanic, was no smooth sailing.
“Chinese genealogy is notoriously difficult, particularly in English-language documents such as shipping records, where names are often inconsistently transcribed,” said Jones. Furthermore, as Jones’ team searched for descendants of the six men, they recognized a pattern: The survivors never told relatives born outside of China about their experience.
It took more than two years and a team of six researchers to fact-check every detail about the lives of the six survivors. Production of their documentary “The Six” began in 2015 and its scheduled release date is this month.
According to records provided by the Titanic Cruise Line, the eight Chinese were between the ages of 24 and 37. They shared one 59-pound third-class ticket. All came from southern China, Taishan city in Guangdong Province, and Hong Kong. Their names were recorded as CHANG Chip, CHEONG Foo, FANG Lang, Ah LAM, LAM Len, LEE Bing, LEE Ling and LING Hee. Lee Ling and Lam Len were the two who did not survive.
Why were these Chinese on board? Various accounts seem to think the eight were bound for the U.S. to start a new gig on a freighter chartered by the Atlantic Fruit Company, the Annetta, heading to Cuba.
When the Titanic struck the iceberg, the Chinese men’s lack of understanding of the English language saved them! They did not understand the crew’s assurances to the other passengers that there was nothing to be alarmed about. Since the eight used to work on cargo ships between China and Europe, their seafaring experience told them to evacuate the ship when freezing water flooded their cabin.
Four found and boarded the backup lifeboat, Collapsible C, of which one of their fellow passengers was none other than the owner of the Titanic J. Bruce Ismay! The Collapsible C was one of the last lifeboats to be lowered from the Titanic. Another of the six was rescued by Lifeboat 13; and one, Fang Lang, clung on to a piece of floating debris (believed to be a wooden door from the Titanic) until he was picked up by Lifeboat 4. The officer on Lifeboat 4 recalled that Fang “worked like a hero” rowing the lifeboat to safety when another passenger was too tired to do so.
When the Carpathia arrived in New York, the six Chinese were given no help, unlike the other 700 survivors. Instead, they were given 24 hours to leave the country because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. There were accounts of them being detained overnight on the Carpathia (thereby never setting foot on U.S. soil) and then dispatched to their next gig, the freighter Annetta, bound for Cuba.
What (scarce) mention there was of the Chinese by the press were negative. They were portrayed as stowaways, that they survived because they secretly climbed on the lifeboat or dressed as women to board lifeboats. There were rumours that the men disguised as women by loosening their queues so their long hair fell around their shoulders. No evidence of this was found. “There is this sense that they were somehow not entitled to seats on lifeboats,” said Schwankert, the lead researcher.
Jones, after visiting foreign archives, museums and cooperating with American and Chinese historians, believed they did nothing disgraceful in order to survive the disaster.
“The Six” is not only a story about the survivors of the Titanic, but also “a story of a group of brave Chinese people exploring the outside world at that time,” Jones said. The documentary team hopes their project will finally put an end to the doubt that was unfairly cast over the men’s characters.
“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,” said Schwankert. “The fact that these men went on and ended up in all these diverse places, I think it shows a lot of 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.”
Descendants of the survivors are living in Canada, China, UK, and the U.S. (Wisconsin!)