New movie pays tribute to, dispels myths surrounding mysterious Chinese ‘Titanic’ survivors
‘The Six’
Published: May 10, 2021 06:13 PM
Promotional material for <em>Titanic</em> Photo: IC

Promotional material for Titanic Photo: IC

The scene where wealthy socialite Rose clings to a floating door after her beloved Jack dies in the freezing waters of the Atlantic is one of the most memorable scenes in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic. But what was previously unknown is that this scene was inspired by the true-life story of one of the six Chinese who survived the 1912 disaster.

It is this tidbit and other surprises that characterize the documentary The Six, a movie about the six Chinese men who survived the sinking of the purportedly unsinkable ocean liner. The documentary, which is currently playing in movie theaters around China, was the brainchild of an American in Beijing called Steven Schwankert, who is the chief researcher and co-creator of the documentary. He has also authored a book about that subject with the same name.

'Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity'

"Originally the idea for the story was mine," Schwankert told the Xinhua News Agency in a recent exclusive interview. 

"While director Arthur Jones was unsure if there was anything new about the Titanic that could be discovered, after discussing the topic with Chinese friends, we agreed it was worth doing some research to see if there was enough material for a documentary and a book."

"The idea of bringing Titanic and China together in a meaningful way for the first time was too compelling to pass up. James Cameron's film Titanic was such a big hit here that the chance for Chinese audiences to know that there were Chinese on the ship and learn their stories was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said.

"We knew early on that James Cameron was aware of the Chinese men's story because he filmed a scene from Titanic of a Chinese man being rescued from the water. That scene was not included in the final film, but it was the inspiration for the Jack and Rose ending that so many fans know and love," Schwankert said, adding that it took him and his team about two years to get the famous director's attention and secure an interview.

Once they had Cameron on board as executive producer, Schwankert said, Cameron was very cooperative and helped them get permission to use footage from Titanic in the documentary. Cameron himself even appears in the documentary as a commentator.

Schwankert traveled around different continents and countries - the US, Canada, Britain and China - to learn what had happened to the Chinese survivors after their rescue. Notebook in hand, he asks probing questions and acts as a sympathetic bystander and active participant, journalist and even detective to painstakingly piece together the puzzles of the fates of the six Chinese survivors.

Setting the record straight

As opposed to the other Titanic survivors, the fates of the six Chinese men were shrouded in mystery. Before they boarded the ill-fated ship, little was known about them, and after they were rescued, people believed they had behaved dishonorably by taking away seats from women and children in the lifeboats. But Schwankert set the record straight.

"Many people believe the Chinese men on Titanic were stowaways, either on the ship itself or in lifeboats; they were not. Nor were they part of Titanic's crew. They were fare-paying passengers, just like every other third-class passenger. There are other claims that they dressed as women to enter lifeboats. There is no evidence of that, even as the claim has persisted for over 100 years," Schwankert said.

Talking about the most intriguing discovery during his investigation into the truth behind the six Chinese survivors, Schwankert said it was "the situation in Collapsible Lifeboat C," but he didn't want to give away any spoilers.

"However, I can say this: When a mystery endures for more than a century, people expect that the answer must be complex. In this case, it was even simpler than we had expected. The problem was that no one had bothered to examine the situation objectively, and therefore, the solution was not obvious," he said.

When asked what the reactions of the Chinese survivors' descendants were to finding out more about their ancestors, Schwankert admitted it was difficult for them to learn something about their relatives from strangers. 

"I think they were pleased to learn more about their family history but struggled to understand why their loved ones hadn't shared those bits of information with others," he said.

A case in point was Tom Fong, the son of Fang Lang, the last Chinese survivor to be rescued after clinging to a floating door who had been rather secretive about his past with his family. Fong compared his father's life to a book, with him being familiar with the last quarter of it, "and there's like three quarters of the book that I never knew about him."

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