What’s in a name? That evergreen question is complicated even further in Arthur Jones’s fascinating documentary, executive produced by James Cameron and informed by the research of marine historian Steven Schwankert. Following the Titanic sinking in 1912, the identities of the 700-odd survivors have been mostly claimed, except for those of six Chinese men – out of eight who boarded – who remained bizarrely neglected. This film chronicles Schwankert’s quest to unravel the mystery, as his arduous journey across the US, the UK, Canada, and China takes the shape of a detective story, where each revelation exposes the blatant racism of early 20th-century western politics.
Armed with a dock slip listing the names of the Titanic’s eight Chinese passengers, Schwankert and peers’ attempt to trace their origins runs into immediate difficulties, as most of their subjects changed their identities in order to sidestep cruel and discriminatory immigration regulations. These Titanic survivors arrived in the US looking to work as labourers, and under the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act they were shipped to other countries immediately after the sinking. Some disappeared without a trace. The only survivor whom the researchers were able to build a coherent narrative around was Fang Lang, who founded a business in the US by changing his name and working as a merchant, shielding himself from the Exclusion Act, which targeted manual labourers.
While this documentary takes a pretty conventional approach, the emotional impact of the exhaustive research is gripping. At one point, a list of Fang Lang’s personal items on the Titanic is uncovered, which includes dozens of neck ties: he was due to attend the wedding of his friend, who perished on this fateful trip. Above all, this film is a window into the open racism against immigrants, the ramifications of which are still deeply felt today.
• The Six is released on 16 November in cinemas.