SHANGHAI — During the editing of “Titanic,” the 1997 blockbuster about the ship’s fated maiden voyage in April 1912, a scene of a Chinese man laying on a door, floating in the ocean and awaiting rescue, was left on the cutting room floor.
But a new documentary, “The Six,” is finally telling the story of R.M.S. Titanic’s half-dozen Chinese survivors. Directed by Arthur Jones, a British man who currently resides in Shanghai, in collaboration with executive producer James Cameron, the director of “Titanic,” it premiered Friday in China, close to the 109th anniversary of the tragedy.
Their history had long remained hidden. Because of racist American immigration policies and the Chinese tendency toward self-effacement, the six men had never told their stories, Jones told Sixth Tone in an earlier interview.
With accounts of the survivors’ family members and animated reconstructions, the documentary traces the fates of the six out of eight Chinese passengers on the Titanic who survived the ship’s sinking.
A promotional poster for “The Six.” From Douban
Documentaries are a niche market in China and usually aren’t allotted many screenings. As of Saturday, “The Six” had taken in a relatively modest 1.59 million yuan ($244,000).
But the tale of Chinese men hoping to move to the U.S. against all odds — at a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade all immigration into the country from China — has attracted outsize interest for a documentary. “The Six” has a solid 8.4 out of 10 rating on culture site Douban.
Chen Zhengfan, an employee at a state-owned enterprise, told Sixth Tone he went to see the film because he was curious how “the buried history is now revealed,” and how a British director would tell a Chinese story.
The six survivors reached New York on April 18, 1912, aboard R.M.S. Carpathia, which carried some 700 Titanic survivors. According to Cheng Wei, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has researched the history of the Titanic’s Chinese passengers, rumors spread in New York that the Chinese men had pretended to be women to get onto lifeboats. Amid widespread racism against Chinese people at the time, these stories — which Cheng said were not based on fact — were soon circulated nationwide through media reports and telegrams.
The United States government later deported the men under the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was repealed in 1943.
Wang Xin, a postdoctoral film researcher at Beijing Normal University, told Sixth Tone that many Chinese viewers of “The Six” have framed the film around a nationalist narrative. “Audiences would easily relate to the fact that, with China’s rise, we do not need to slip across the border or work as coolies anymore,” he said.
After a screening on Friday, a student surnamed Li contrasted the stories of the survivors — fleeing from the “backward” China of yesteryear — with the country’s present-day confidence. He told Sixth Tone he was moved by the survivors’ histories.
“As a citizen from a poor country, you may face problems like discrimination after going to a rich country,” he said. “Therefore, national prosperity is important.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A photo from the documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” shows Chinese women and children in a California immigration station. PBS)