Thousands of people fell into the frigid waters when the luxury British cruise ship Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean in April 1912.
Only one of the lifeboats that escaped the sunken ship turned back in search of potential survivors. In the dark, rescue teams found a young Chinese man clinging to a wooden door and quivering alive.
The man was Fang Lang, one of Titanic’s six Chinese survivors, and his rescue continued to inspire the famous scene of the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster Titanic.
But their miraculous survival was not the end of their trials.
Within 24 hours of arriving at the Immigration Inspection Center on Ellis Island in New York, they were expelled from the country by the Chinese Exclusion Act, a controversial law banning Chinese immigrants to the United States.
Six men have disappeared from history-until now. The documentary film The Six, which just premiered in China, highlights their identity and life 109 years after their fateful voyage.
It reveals a story that transcends Titanic, a story shaped by racism and anti-immigration policy. And it resonated especially today following the recent anti-Asian abuse in the United States.
Who were the six Chinese survivors?
The men were identified as Lee Bin, Hwang Lang, Chang Chip, A Lam, Jung Fu, and Lin Hee. They were believed to be sailors heading to the Caribbean for work.
“They aren’t uniquely known as a group of people together,” British filmmaker and director of The Six, Arthur Jones, told the BBC.
The names of Chinese survivors are on the ship’s passenger list, and news articles reporting the sinking of the Titanic briefly mentioned them.
However, according to historians and researchers, unlike other Titanic survivors praised by the press, Chinese men were accused of Western anti-Chinese sentiment in the early 20th century.
For example, in a report submitted a few days after the sinking, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called the Chinese survivors who jumped into the lifeboat “at the first sign of danger” “creatures” and hid themselves under their seats.
However, a study by the documentary production team showed that this claim was not true.
They made a replica of the Titanic lifeboat and realized that it was impossible for a Chinese man to hide behind the scenes. “I think we know the same thing today. I found an immigrant. [were] It was scapegoated by the media, “says Jones.
Other media reports at the time accused a Chinese man of dressing as a woman in order to prioritize boarding a lifeboat.
Titanic historian Tim Maltin says there is no evidence that Chinese survivors were stowaways or impersonated women.
“These were stories made up of the press and the general public after the event,” he tells the BBC.
Rumors may have arisen from the stigma given to many Titanic male survivors, as the general public at the time felt that women and children should be prioritized in rescue.
According to Martin, the Chinese man tried to help other survivors. Van Lang, a man who bumped into a floating door, later rowed on a lifeboat, rescued him, and helped safely carry everyone on board.
What happened to them after the accident?
Apart from the United States, six men were sent to Cuba. They soon found a way to Britain. There was a shortage of seafarers as many British seafarers joined the military during World War I.
Chanchip became more and more ill after an unlucky night and eventually died of pneumonia in 1914. He was buried in an unmarked tomb in a London cemetery.
The rest worked together in the UK until 1920. Britain suffered from the post-war recession, raising anti-immigrant sentiment.
Some Chinese men married a British woman in the United Kingdom and had children. However, anti-immigration policies have forced them to leave their loved ones and leave the country without notice.
“And it wasn’t their fault. All these families were really driven [apart] Something they couldn’t really control because of politics, “says Jones.
Ah Lam was deported to Hong Kong and Ling Hee boarded a steamship to Kolkata (Calcutta), India.
Lee Bin emigrated to Canada, and Van Lang became a citizen of the United States, a country that once rejected him after years of sailing between Britain and Hong Kong.
History and present similarities
Fang Lang’s son, Tom Fong, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, almost half a century after the sinking of the Titanic. Family names have various spellings in English.
For decades he knew nothing about his father’s experience of being “unable to sink.”
“He (Fan Lang) never talked about it, at least not to me or my mother,” Fong told the BBC.
Fang died in 1985 at the age of 90. Twenty years after his death, Mr. Fung first learned from his family that his father had survived a spectacular shipwreck.
Mr. Fong suspects that his father kept the Titanic alive as a secret from him because of the mixture of trauma and stigma.
“There was a lot of information that I was sneaking under the boat and dressed as a woman …” he says. “At that time, such a story was circulating.”
When the Six research team tracked offspring of survivors, many of them were still reluctant to share family stories because of the stigma they experienced a century ago.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Fong witnessed many incidents in which his father had to fight racism.
“He (Fan Lang) was a nice gentleman until he felt discriminated against because of his ethnicity,” says Fong.
The hostility experienced by six Chinese survivors for more than 100 years mysteriously reflects today’s pandemic-fueled anti-Asian racism.
In the United States alone, thousands of cases of abuse have been reported in recent months, from spitting, verbal harassment to violent assault.
Mr. Fong chose to share the story of his family in the hope that the audience would learn about the true story of the Titanic’s Chinese survivors and look back on what’s happening now.
“If you don’t know history, it repeats itself,” says Fong.
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