Feature: Sailing out of historical mystery with Chinese version of Titanic


   By Xinhua writer Bai Xu
   CANBERRA, March 23 -- The British passenger liner Titanic became known to many Chinese people thanks to a blockbuster first screened in China in 1998. However, viewers at that time had no idea that the rescue of the heroine at the end of the movie was based on the real story of a Chinese survivor.
   That Chinese survivor might have been the last person to be saved, according to James Cameron, director of the movie "Titanic." "And that became the inspiration for how Rose was saved," he said in a trailer for "The Six: The Untold Story of RMS Titanic's Chinese Passengers," on which he served as executive producer.
   "The Six", a documentary exploring the little-known history of how some Chinese passengers managed to survive after Titanic struck an iceberg, is to be screened in cinemas across China starting on April 16, a day after the 109th anniversary of the legendary ship's sinking.
   "This is a documentary that tells a totally new story about a totally new set of people who almost no one knew were on board Titanic before," said British filmmaker Arthur Jones, director of the film.
   "We decided to make a kind of detective story, about a team of researchers trying to find something out," he told Xinhua from China in a telephone interview.
   Jones, 47, was born in a large industrial Yorkshire town in the north of England, and grew up near the home of an old woman believed to be a Titanic survivor. That experience planted a seed deep in his heart.
   In 1996, he moved to China where he has been living since, learning Mandarin and working on film projects.
   An opportunity came knocking several years ago when his friend Steven Schwankert, a scholar in marine history, told him about the Chinese survivors on Titanic, whose stories had never been told before.
   On April 10, 1912, Titanic, once the most luxurious ship in the world and often referred to as "unsinkable", started out from Southampton in England to New York on its maiden voyage. Five days later, the ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. More than 1,500 people died.
   On the ship there were eight Chinese men who had previously worked on cargo ships travelling around Europe. They boarded the Titanic in England on a single ticket listing eight names, staying in the third-class cabin. Though they were sailors by profession, on Titanic they were travelling as passengers - they were on their way to a new job. Then disaster struck - and six of them made it out alive.
   "I was pulled into the story by his (Schwankert's) passion," Jones recalled.
   The two of them started working on the project in 2015. The search for possible descendants, relatives and even neighbors of the survivors was not easy.
   "It's 109 years ago and...records of the Chinese guys were so limited," said Jones. "We just had a list of names, and the names were not in Chinese."
   They tried almost every way they could think of to pursue the various threads of the story. "A lot of historical work, a lot of archives, a lot of interviewing people, a lot of looking at old newspapers," he said.
   Sometimes confirmation took longer than locating the descendants and relatives.
   Typically, according to Jones, people who are connected to Titanic through family have known about it since childhood - it becomes part of family legend. But that was not the case for the Chinese descendants, who either knew nothing of the link, or suspected it but worried it might be wrong.
   They found some descendants relatively early, but spent about four or five years trying to confirm their connection with the survivors.
   "We did actually find more people we believe are descendants, but they were nervous about making such a big claim after all these years. We respected their privacy," said the director.
   Jones could understand well why the Chinese descendants didn't know much about the survivors.
   There had been rumors about how the Chinese survivors escaped. One of the claims was that they dressed as women in order to get onto the life boats.
   "Surviving Titanic was a very traumatic experience. Then...the newspapers wrote some terrible stories about them."
   "Perhaps they felt some shame connected to it," said Jones. So several of the survivors chose not to tell their family, if they had one, what had happened to them.
   But during the past five years, the team managed to find new evidence about the escape of all six survivors, including that about what they had been actually wearing during the escape -- not women's clothes. 
   "There is no evidence that they did anything wrong," the director said. "So, how did they survive? They did it by pulling together."
   Evidence suggests that the Chinese passengers worked as a group to escape from their cabin. They got to the boat decks early and waited there. One got onto a life boat relatively early on, and four others got on another later.
   The last survivor, known as Fang Lang, fell or jumped into the water. He seemed to have swum around for about 20 to 30 minutes before being pulled out by British officer Harold Lowe.
   "James Cameron knew about this part of the story. One of the reasons he wanted to get involved in our film was because he was fascinated by the survivor in the water," said Jones.
   After the disaster, the experience of the six survivors in the United States was not pleasant. The discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act, which was in force at the time, meant they had to leave the country within 24 hours.
   So, unlike other passengers who were put up in local hotels or treated in hospitals for their injuries, the six Chinese had to stay on the rescue ship overnight, and were moved to a departing ship the following day.
   One of them died within two years of the accident. Others ended up in different countries where it was very hard for them to settle down, start relationships or have children, in part because of discriminatory immigration laws.
   Fang Lang was a very old man when he had children, and he never told his story to his family.
   Jones recalled Fang Lang's son Tom asking the research team to "please help me find out the truth."
   "There was such a big generational gap in his family," said Jones. "Learning about Titanic was in a way about learning about his father, and who he really was. As the project continued, we realized that in some senses, we were helping bridge that divide."
   In the decades that have followed its tragic sinking, Titanic has been used as a lens through which each subsequent generation has examined the issues of their own time: duty, bravery, class, gender and, now more than ever, discrimination faced by migrants.
   Jones believes that lessons can still be learned today, especially at a time when the ship of the world is facing its own "iceberg": COVID-19.
   "The story of different ethnic groups on Titanic seems an appropriate metaphor for how different countries and different peoples have reacted to each other in a time of crisis," he said.
   He noted that the several hundred people on Titanic who ultimately survived the disaster, did so largely by sticking together. "When they did work together, as the Chinese and many others seem to have done, they survived in higher numbers."
   It is also true for countries.
   "Now there are some problems you can't solve as an individual country," Jones continued. "You have to find out the areas you can work together."
   During the process of investigation and film making, the initial team Jones and Schwankert set up grew from three or four people into an international group of more than 20 in many different countries around the world, and the project has become part of their lives. Alongside the film, Schwankert is writing a book about the Chinese survivors.
   Director Jones said he hoped the movie would reach a wide global audience, and perhaps even more people who secretly suspect they have a connection with the Titanic story.
   "Maybe at some point soon more people will come forward," he said. "There were some descendants whose stories we couldn't tell this time, but we hope we will be able to tell them soon."