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Documentary Highlights Chinese Titanic Survivors Barred from U.S., Erased from History

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The Six, executive-produced by James Cameron, revolves around Titanic survivors who were denied entry into the United States after the April 15, 1912 sinking.

What We Know:

  • The documentary, which premieres this Friday in China, has “chillingly relevant” survivors’ stories. It discusses Lee Bing, Fang Lang, Chang Chip, Ling Hee, Ah Lam, and Chung Foo’s experiences. Although some reports depicted them as stowaways, they were professional mariners. They were traveling aboard the Titanic to get to their next job.
  • The six stayed in third-class transport, where they had “probably some of the nicest accommodations on a ship that they had ever encountered.” Others barely noticed the travelers on the ship, said Steven Schwankert, the film’s lead researcher. Despite this, they faced scrutiny when they survived.
  • People accused the group of cramming themselves under seats and disguising themselves in women’s clothing. Schwankert states that most of these accounts came from grieving survivors. A majority of these people were women who lost their husbands and older sons and gave skewed descriptions. They felt pain and trauma, and, because of this, they made the Chinese passengers scapegoats. Regardless, Schwankert declared nobody should have to apologize for surviving. He also mentioned that the six did not cause anyone’s death.

“If they have a legitimate opportunity to get into a lifeboat seat… There was no reason to choose death for death’s sake and not survive, but there was definitely a feeling after it was all over that if a man survived, he automatically took the place of a woman or a child, and that just simply isn’t the case,” affirmed Schwankert.

  • When the Carpathia, the ship that picked up Titanic survivors, entered the U.S., the men were denied entry. At this time, anti-Chinese discrimination was codified and legalized in 1912. NBC News reports that the pilgrims were treated with the same attitudes the United States maintained toward the Chinese under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The six survivors unwillingly spent the night on the Carpathia then traveled to Cuba.
  • Nancy Wang Yuen, an associate professor of sociology at Biola University, said the passengers’ reputations were common at the time. This is because of the Page Act, which banned Asian women from coming to the United States. It also prevented them from marrying someone outside of their race. Schwankert also declared that their lives post-Titanic would have been worse. They lived in the West “during a time of rampant racism and discrimination.”
  • While the film explains details about their lives, there is still little information on them. Yuen states this is a reflection of how people viewed the subjects as dismissible.

“The erasure of Chinese survivors compared to the mythical celebration of white Titanic survivors sheds light on how Asians have often been treated in the United States: as casualties of disasters,” Yuen vocalized.

  • One of the six has a special connection to the film Titanic. The scene in which the titular characters, Jack and Rose, are floating on a piece of wreckage, was inspired by Hong Konger Lang’s rescue. Despite this, not a lot of information is known about Lang or the others. The public may never get many details on these people due to history’s erasure.
  • Schwankert aims to find streaming services to provide the documentary to a wider audience. He asserts that the film was an opportunity to return dignity and honor to these victims. “In a few of the cases, we’re talking about people whom even we now know very little,” he indicated. Regardless, Schwankert wants people to know the Chinese Titanic survivors deserve integrity and respect.

Chinese immigrants today still face similar prejudice. Just last month, a mass shooting in Georgia targeted Asian-American women. Due to the increasing amount of Asian-American hate crimes due to COVID-19, the Senate passed a bill that will outline how to report such actions. It will also detail practices to “mitigate racially discriminatory language in describing” the pandemic. The Six just emphasizes an issue that has circulated for many generations. With the current climate, it is a call for solutions in ending xenophobia. It urges people to work towards acceptance of all communities.

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