SHANGHAI — More than a century after the Titanic sank in April 1912, few new stories surface from the wreck. When documentary filmmaker Arthur Jones and his team started work on “The Six” — their film about the ship’s six Chinese survivors — in 2012, they kept expecting to find that someone else had already told the story.
Yet the history of the Chinese passengers who escaped the Titanic has largely been forgotten, even in their homeland, as discriminatory U.S. immigration policies and a cultural imperative of self-effacement combined to obscure their tale.
“There is something that really is quite Chinese about that: Essentially, don’t raise your head too far above the parapet because you will get shot down,” Jones told Sixth Tone from his Shanghai studio. “I think that a confluence of these two factors means that out of several hundred people, they were the only ones who never told their stories.”
The odds were stacked against them: The average survival rate for men in third class was just one in six. But when disaster struck, being a poor sailor with limited English turned into an advantage for the eight Chinese men onboard — and six of them survived.
All eight Chinese men hailed from southern China. They had previously worked on cargo ships traveling between China and Europe, and they likely intended to migrate to the U.S. to start a new life. They boarded the Titanic in Southampton, England, on a single ticket listing eight names — a common practice for third-class passengers. Like other unmarried third-class men, they were housed in windowless cabins in the bow of the ship.
When the ship struck an iceberg, the men living in the least desirable conditions saw the gravity of the situation with their own eyes. Freezing water flooded into their living quarters, while on the upper levels, the crew were still reassuring first- and second-class passengers that nothing was amiss. Relying on their own survival skills, the Chinese sailors would have reacted quickly to evacuate the ship, Jones said — especially since they likely did not understand orders in English to stay in their rooms.
Credit : Nuala Gathercole Lam for www.sixthtone.com