It was hours after the Titanic plunged under the ocean, and when the rescuers swept their flashlight one last time over the icy dark water, they spotted the young man clinging desperately to a floating wooden door.
Barely holding on to life, Fang Lang was among the last survivors dragged from the frozen seas after the tragedy that killed 1,500 people.
The 17-year-old boy was one of eight Chinese third-class passengers aboard the luxury steamer when it struck an iceberg in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, midway on its maiden voyage to New York.
But while the fate of the Titanic’s richest passengers, such as “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown and one of the richest men in the world, John Jacob Astor, has filled history books and fascinated movie fans, the stories of many other ship travelers quickly sank without a trace.
Ah Lam, Fang Lang, Len Lam, Cheong Foo, Chang Chip, Ling Hee, Lee Bing, and Lee Ling – sailors believed to have traveled to the Caribbean for work – stayed in the with fellow third class passengers Steering has been crammed with entrails of the giant liner.
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Two of the Chinese men drowned, but five of the others escaped on lifeboats. The sixth, Fang, had been clinging to debris and was about to freeze when rescued after only one of those lifeboats returned to search for survivors.
The way the teenage boy was found shivering in the dark as he clung to the floating door in the freezing water inspired a famous scene in the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster Titanic.
Director James Cameron eventually cut the original character based on Fang, but used his salvation to inspire the tragic moment in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack sacrificed himself so that Kate Winslet’s Rose could survive.
Now, however, a new documentary has traced what happened to Fang and the other Chinese survivors and exposed how, instead of being honored for surviving the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, they were defamed and expelled from the United States after being returned to shore and later also from Great Britain.
The Six, which just premiered in China, has also tracked descendants of the survivors, some of whom had no idea their relatives were on board the ship because they had never spoken about the disaster.
The names of the eight Chinese passengers can still be found on a single third class ticket, suggesting that all the men knew each other and boarded the Titanic together in Southampton.
The British filmmaker Arthur Jones discovered, together with the American historian Steven Schwankert, that the men between the ages of 18 and 37 were on their way to Cuba and should board the Annetta, a freighter, after the Titanic docked in New York.
All but one of the eight men, Lee Bing, were single.
Steven explains, “The reason you were on the Titanic in the first place is because of the work. They were professional sailors. “
The Titanic was four days in its voyage when it scraped along the iceberg.
Water filled the underwater compartments and less than three hours later the ship crashed into the sea, taking all but 700 people with it.
Of the non-British men who were in control, only 20% survived.
It is believed that the Chinese sailors cheated on death because they did not understand the instructions on how to stay in their rooms and were therefore able to flee to the lifeboats.
But unlike other Titanic survivors, after arriving safely in New York, the six men were slandered and persecuted due to strong anti-Chinese sentiment in the west at the beginning of the 20th century.
They were also falsely accused of saving their own lives from women and children by hiding in the lifeboats.
However, records show that they tried to help other survivors. After Fang Lang was pulled out of the water, he later rowed the lifeboat that rescued him and helped get everyone on board to safety.
Little more was known about the men until Jones and Schwankert began their research.
They found that within 24 hours of arriving at the immigration control station on Ellis Island, New York, the men were expelled from the country under the Chinese Exclusion Act, a controversial law that banned Chinese people from immigrating to the United States.
Unlike other survivors, they also received no medical help. Director Arthur says, “You have not been treated humanely. We know they lost close friends on board. Not only did they have to leave within 24 hours, but they were also detained overnight. “
They had to travel to the Caribbean to work on fruit ships before going to Britain due to a shortage of seafarers due to the men fighting in World War I.
Chang Chip, 32, became increasingly unwell and died of pneumonia in 1914.
He was buried in an unmarked grave in London. The other five worked together in Britain until 1920, some married and had children.
But in another gruesome twist, a new policy against immigrants forced them all to go without notice, leaving their loved ones behind.
Ah Lam was deported to Hong Kong, Ling Hee went to India, while Lee Bing emigrated to Canada. Fang Lang sailed between Britain and Hong Kong for years before becoming a citizen of the country that rejected him – the United States.
The filmmakers tracked down his American-Chinese son Tom Fong, who was born almost half a century after the sinking of the Titanic in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The 59-year-old revealed during his childhood that his relatives had hinted his father survived a shipwreck but he never spoke about it, or even about his mother Marie, who is now 86 years old.
Fang, a waiter in Milwaukee, was 65 years old when Tom was born and died in 1985 at the age of 90.
Tom didn’t learn that his father had survived the Titanic until a family member mentioned it 20 years after his death.
He says, “I asked my mother. She had never heard of my father being on that boat and it was sinking. “
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He believes his father kept it a secret because of the trauma and persecution.
Researchers later found that Fang wrote about the accident to his relatives on Xiachuan, an island in the South China Sea, and that a person there has a poem that Fang wrote about his struggle to survive in the cold ocean while others called for help the darkness around him.
But Tom, who owns a restaurant, hasn’t told anyone about his father until now – for fear that people won’t believe him.
He says, “It’s crazy. I never really told anyone. I was scared of it. It would be like telling someone you were inside a UFO or saw aliens. They would think you were crazy.” ”
Now, 109 years later, Tom can proudly tell the incredible story of his father.