In a deleted scene from James Cameron’s Titanic, Commander Harold Lowe (Ioan Gruffudd) returns to the site of the fatal collision between the British passenger liner and an iceberg, in search of passengers. “Is anyone alive out there?” he yells into the dark sea, now littered with suitcases, pieces of wood and frozen dead bodies. “Can anyone hear me?” the captain desperately screams. Suddenly he hears a faint reply in the distance. He and his crew row in the direction of the voice until they come across a pale Chinese man floating on a scrap of the ship. They pull him into the boat, saving his life.
This scene, which is based on the story of RMS Titanic passenger Fang Lang, anchors The Six, a new documentary about the ship’s handful of Chinese voyagers. Directed by Arthur Jones and executive produced by Cameron, The Six is a methodical and roving investigation of the fate of six Chinese men who survived that cold April night in 1912. The RMS Titanic looms large in our cultural imagination, and stories about it will always pique interest because the magnitude of the tragedy still feels incomprehensible.
The Bottom Line
An engaging documentary built on small revelations.
Jones capitalizes on the mystery surrounding the ship to craft a thoughtful and quietly suspenseful documentary about a relatively unknown part of the Titanic’s legacy. While The Six begins with the mammoth watercraft, it smartly moves beyond it to consider the historical reality that made finding these half-dozen men nearly impossible. It’s a clear-eyed examination of global racism and various nations’ anti-Chinese immigration policies, whose ramifications are still felt today. It’s also a penetrating argument for looking beyond written history for narrative reconstruction.
The film opens with Steven Schwankert, a writer and editor whose research focuses on Greater China, speaking emphatically to a group about how he became absorbed in the mystery of the Chinese survivors of the Titanic. (According to a title card that appears during the film’s early seconds, The Six is based on an original idea by Schwankert.) The lack of curiosity about what happened to these men seemed preposterous to him, especially in light of the fact that the lives of the other 700-plus people who survived are incredibly well documented.
Schwankert sets out to rectify this by assembling a team of more than a dozen researchers across several continents to help him investigate the six lives. Interviews with Schwankert and Cameron efficiently tackle the cultural legacy of the Titanic, refreshing our understanding of both the shipwreck and Cameron’s film. When the director set out to dramatize this unique historical moment, he wanted to move beyond the glamorous narrative of the wealthy people on board to understand the lower-class and immigrant passengers, whose dreams heighten the tragedy.
The Six takes a true-crime approach to its subject, which works considering the lack of solid leads Schwankert and his team have. Names are the first order of business. Schwankert and his team begin with the Titanic passenger lists to figure out the names of the eight Chinese men on the ship: Ali Lam, Fang Lang, Len Lam, Cheong Foo, Chang Chip, Ling Hee, Lee Bing and Lee Ling. They were all sailors, probably from Guangdong Province, a place of origin that helps Schwankert and the team recognize that the first name on the list, Ali Lam, is incorrect. A tradition in that region is for people to go by Ah, a nickname, and what the researchers realize is that the first passenger’s name was not “Ali Lam” but “Ah Lam.”
The team’s investigation is one of details like these, small but exciting revelations that clarify existing records. While that doesn’t translate to a propulsive documentary, it does make for a steady and continuously interesting study. The next step is tracking down descendants of the survivors, which involves scouring newspaper archives and the web for crumbs. It’s a slow process filled with false leads and dead ends that could easily discourage the impatient, but what comes through in this documentary is the sheer dedication to the project of Schwankert and his team. You can’t help but feel inspired.
An internet board post leads the team to Tom Fong, a man who claims to be a descendent of Fang Lang. They head to Janesville, Wisconsin, for an interview. Bolstered by a sometimes incongruously suspenseful score, The Six picks up considerable speed as the researchers realize they can, at least, reconstruct the life of one of the passengers. What follows is an intricate and fascinating narrative about identity, friendship and family. The documentary takes us from the United States to parts of China, where the story of the Titanic is popular but the details about its Chinese survivors are not well known. The researchers travel to rural provinces in China where they think these men grew up, and learn more about what they left behind.
Dreams of the opportunity to build a different life looms over many of the stories they hear, and what becomes increasingly clear are the limitations of written history. For many of the townspeople Schwankert and his team talk to, the stories they know have been passed down orally, and not in writing. At one point, Schwankert makes a comment that’s impossible to forget, and which I think is the real lesson of this enterprise. “So many people feel like their family history is either not special or somehow shameful or just otherwise not important, and I think that’s really sad,” he says. “There are lots of people’s stories that are really interesting and, more importantly, historically valuable.”
The Six is a special documentary because Jones and Schwankert understand the limits of the available material. There is only so much they actually know about these passengers, and, as result, the two smartly support their main narrative with interesting auxiliary threads. They interview experts about the history of Chinese migrants in the United States and Britain and the racist immigration policies they faced in both countries. They speak to and spend a considerable amount of time with the descendants of the sailors, and these interactions reveal complicated and secretive family histories. With each conversation, The Six blossoms into a poignant story about these men, their families and their legacies.