For all the books, documentaries, and movies about the Titanic, the discovery that Chinese passengers were among those who survived the cruise ship’s sinking has come as a surprise for many, a result of their stories being forgotten in an era of cultural conflicts.
Eight Chinese passengers were on board the so-called “unsinkable ship” that set sail from England on April 10, 1912, and six of them ultimately made it off the Titanic alive after a 2 million-metric-ton (2.2 million-ton) iceberg punched through the ship’s hull, sinking it in two-and-a-half hours. The Six, an upcoming documentary to be released in 2018, tells the story of those six survivors.
“The press at the time labelled the Chinese survivors, referred to in places as ‘celestials,’ as cowards who dressed as women to sneak into lifeboats,” Steven Schwankert, the film’s chief researcher and an American maritime historian, tells Quartz. “They had no basis for that, and we believe it’s just not true… it’s time for these men to have their rightful place in history.”
The film’s director Arthur Jones said the fact their stories were lost in history was “deliberate” and “something that the culture of the time made happen.”
The Chinese men were third-class passengers. Four of the Chinese men survived by boarding the last lifeboat on the Titanic, one was on another lifeboat, and the sixth person was found floating on wreckage. In total, there were 706 survivors out of 2,223 passengers.
But the six men were banned from entering the US, a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act, disappearing from the public view within 24 hours of landing on Ellis Island, a major immigration point.
Work on the film started in 2015 and took two years. In the process, Jones and Schwankert visited the UK, US, and China to search for the stories of the six, mysteries even for the survivors’ descendants.
A trailer for the documentary, which was released in June, went viral on Weibo, China’s Twitter-esque social network, in August after local media reported on it. Within days, Jones said hundreds of thousands of people reached out hoping to support the project, inspiring him to launch the website whoarethesix.com on Aug. 30 in hopes of unearthing more information, possibly from those with familial connections.
On Weibo, many Chinese internet users said they were looking forward to watching the documentary. “It has many good elements—a well-known history story, an unsolved mystery, China from an English perspective—all of which combined together produce a good story,” commented (link in Chinese) user Ban Feng.
This story was corrected on Sept. 11, 2017. The story earlier said the men worked on the ship as stokers, and that five of the men were on the last lifeboat.