New movie "The Six" pays tribute to, dispels myths surrounding mysterious Chinese Titanic survivors

(Xinhua) 11:26, May 07, 2021

Steven Schwankert visits the home where the Titanic survivor known as Fang Lang grew up. (Photo provided by Steven Schwankert)

Escaping the Titanic disaster was by no means the greatest obstacle the six Chinese survivors had to overcome in their lives. "They deserved for their stories to be known as much as any other Titanic passengers," Steven Schwankert said.

BEIJING, May 6 (Xinhua) -- 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.

"Originally the idea for the story was mine," Schwankert told Xinhua in a recent exclusive interview. "While director Arthur Jones was unsure if there was anything new about '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.

As for the financing of the ambitious project, Schwankert revealed that "The Six" is completely a Chinese production. At first, he and Jones paid for bits of travel and research on their own, before LP Films of Shanghai and producer Luo Tong took on the project and QC Media later joined as a producer and distributor, he said.

Members of the Fang family remember their relatives in a ceremony in Guangdong Province. (Photo provided by Steven Schwankert)

Schwankert traveled around different continents and countries -- the United States, 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.

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.

Some of the research methods Schwankert and his team used to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the six Chinese survivors, like tracking down their descendants, figuring out the survivors' escape means and their later whereabouts were compelling. For example, to prove some of his hypotheses, Schwankert agreed to an experiment to see himself what it is like to experience hypothermia and had a lifeboat reconstructed at a school in Beijing with some students playing "stowaways" by hiding under the benches.

"The Six" co-creator Steven Schwankert inspects a lifeboat model built for the documentary. (Photo provided by Steven Schwankert)

Regarding the most pressing challenges he faced when making "The Six," Schwankert explained that it involved identifying the six survivors at the outset.

"The biggest challenge was beginning with a list of names that really told us nothing. We had Chinese names that were romanized, so we didn't know where these men were from, what dialect of Chinese they spoke, or what their Chinese names were. That made our progress quite slow when we started out," he said. But he and his team persisted, identified the six men, and traced their whereabouts after the rescue.

"By the time we were finished, about 20 researchers had assisted us with our work. That included genealogists, and researchers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Arthur (Jones) and I are historical optimists: We believe we're going to find material when we set out to find it. We never believe anything is 'lost to history' -- that's just an excuse that people use instead of admitting they ran out of resources or time," 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 for those who haven't seen the documentary yet.

"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 who had survived the "Titanic" disaster and sharing their stories, Schwankert admitted it was difficult for the families 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 themselves," he said.

Tom Fong, son of Titanic survivor Fang Lang, talks about his father's life in the documentary "The Six." (Photo provided by Steven Schwankert)

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."

Moviegoers have reacted well to "The Six," Schwankert reported, although he admitted that since it's a documentary, it's difficult to expect it to become a commercial hit. One of the reasons for its popularity, though, might be that it addresses current social problems that may resonate with many Chinese moviegoers.

Over a century ago, the six Chinese survivors suffered from prevailing anti-Asian sentiment in the United States. The situation does not appear to have improved much today, with anti-Asian hate crimes being widely reported by the media.

"I think 'The Six' shows that these are not new problems, and therefore, we can't think they are going to get resolved quickly," Schwankert said. "But hopefully with greater understanding, we can continue to learn more about each other and see our differences as strengths, rather than as points of tension."

Besides overcoming discrimination to fulfill their dreams, a series of hardships awaited them after being rescued: battling poverty, accepting back-breaking work, trying to reach countries that were not interested in having them, Schwankert said, which is why he said at the end of the documentary that escaping the Titanic disaster was by no means the greatest obstacle the six Chinese survivors had to overcome in their lives.

Yet Schwankert said he hoped "The Six" was meaningful. "They deserved for their stories to be known as much as any other Titanic passengers."

(Web editor: Guo Wenrui, Liang Jun)


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