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'The Six' Looks At How 6 Chinese Men's Lives Unfolded After They Survived The Titanic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We all know the story of the Titanic. Less well-known are the stories of six Chinese men who survived when it sank. A new documentary, "The Six," looks at how their lives unfolded after the tragedy. NPR's Emily Feng reports from Beijing.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: For more than a century, the six Chinese survivors of the Titanic were known only by their barely legible Romanized names on a passenger list. That wasn't a lot to start with for the makers of "The Six." Here's Steve Schwankert, the film's researcher.

STEVEN SCHWANKERT: There was a name on there that for years had been rendered in English as Ali, like Muhammad Ali - A-L-I - Lam. And only when we looked at the original document did we finally see it's not Ali. It's Ah Lam.

FENG: Ah Lam - a very common nickname in Southern China.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SIX")

SCHWANKERT: Wow. Wow. Wow. It's November 27, 1980.

FENG: And from there, the filmmakers take us on their journey of discovery. They find ship manifests and old letters that flesh out the lives of these six surviving Chinese men.

SCHWANKERT: We got to see the stack of letters that Fong Wing Sun had written to a relative.

FENG: Most of the Chinese men on the Titanic were professional sailors who had been contracted to work on another ship departing from the U.S. Two other Chinese men who set sail with them on the Titanic did not survive.

SCHWANKERT: They were actually on their way to Cleveland to - one of them was going to get married there, and then they were going to set up a business.

FENG: One of the six survived by clinging onto a wooden door, likely the inspiration for Rose's story in James Cameron's fictional movie "Titanic." In real life, the six arrive in 1912 in New York City. They were not allowed to disembark, even though aid groups had already gathered to help non-American passengers.

SCHWANKERT: They spent the night on Carpathia, the rescue ship, whereas everyone else got off. And then the next morning, they were picked up by U.S. immigration officials. And then the next day, they sailed away.

FENG: The six scatter, first to Cuba, then to the Caribbean, to Singapore, India and the U.K. They were sent away because the U.S. in 1912 still had something called the Chinese Exclusion Act, an immigration law only repealed in 1965 which banned Chinese people from emigrating to the U.S. And they were accused at the time of all sorts of untrue smears.

SCHWANKERT: That they hid in the boats, that they got in and somehow got underneath the seats and hid, that they dressed as women to gain access to lifeboats.

FENG: Schwankert says that anti-Asian racism is still apparent in the spate of anti-Asian hate crimes this past year.

SCHWANKERT: You know, we didn't suddenly discover, oh, there are, you know, Asians in America, and we hate them. This has been going on a long time, and that means that the solution is not going to come quickly.

FENG: The six likely never returned to China, though one named Fang Lang did make it to the U.S., where his descendants live today. In the decades that followed, Fang even wrote a poem about the Titanic sinking to his great-nephew, who lives in Southern China, where the film crew found him.

SCHWANKERT: And the man just kind of, like, looked up, and then out comes the poem.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SIX")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHWANKERT: In the poem, it's the exact circumstances of Fang Wing Sun's rescue. I was in the water, and a piece of wood saved my life. And there - here are three or four of my friends on the rescue ship. We wipe the tears away as we laugh.

FENG: "The Six" is directed by Arthur Jones and produced by - who else? - "Titanic's" director, James Cameron. It's premiering in China but will have a global release soon. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.