442: The Six Chinese Men Who Survived the Titanic

Anti-Chinese sentiments had largely erased them from history—until recently

Less than a third of the passengers on the RMS Titanic survived and among them were six Chinese men.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

One of the most iconic scenes in modern cinema was inspired by a Chinese man.

Fang Lang is believed to be the last person to be rescued after the RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. He was found floating in the middle of the north Atlantic, clinging to a wooden door. While director James Cameron did film this scene for Titanic, it was deleted from the final cut. Instead, it was Kate Winslet’s character, Rose, who was rescued from a floating piece of ship debris.

When the Titanic crashed into an iceberg on its maiden voyage, more than 1,500 of the 2,240 people aboard died. Lang was one of six Chinese men who survived. In addition to Lang, the five other Chinese survivors were Lee Bing, Chang Chip, Ah Lam, Cheong Foo, and Ling Hee. There were two more Chinese men on board, Len Lam and Lee Ling, but they did not survive.

But this was just the beginning of their ordeal. Rather than being praised and celebrated like their fellow survivors, the six men—believed to be sailors on their way to the Caribbean to work—arrived in New York at the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. They were expelled from the country within 24 hours and sent to Cuba, according to the BBC.

Within days, the six men—who weren’t even allowed to step off the rescue ship—were vilified in the press. Reporting on the disaster, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called the men (survivors, as well as the deceased) “coolies,” described them as “creatures” who “sprung onto the lifeboats” at the first sign of danger and “concealed themselves beneath the seats.” There were other reports of the men disguising themselves by donning women’s dresses, but historians note that at the time, people weren’t familiar with traditional Chinese robes and could have mistaken them for women’s dresses, according to the Asian news site, Nikkei Asia.

The 2021 documentary, The Six, about these Chinese survivors, disproves these claims.

There aren’t many records of the Chinese passengers—their presence on the Titanic went largely unnoticed until the ship sank and their survival underwent much scrutiny. One of the reasons may be because of the exclusion act. Many Chinese immigrants at the time traveled as “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” using false names to pose as relatives of those already in the United States—which is what these men did, according to Nikkei Asia.

The anti-Chinese sentiments of the time are also reflected in how quickly these men were erased from the media and history books—a stark contrast to the well-documented lives of many wealthy white survivors—according to NBC News Asian America.

In the article sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen said this erasure, compared to the “mythical celebration of white Titanic survivors sheds light on how Asians have often been treated in the United States: as casualties of disasters.”

Eventually, the six made their way to the United Kingdom, where they found work as sailors. Chip died from pneumonia in 1914, while the remaining five worked together until 1920, when anti-immigrant sentiments—and policies—ran high. A few of the men had gotten married and had children at that point, so when they were forced to leave the country, they had to leave behind their families. The men ended up in different parts of the world, including India, Hong Kong, Canada, and back in the United States, according to the BBC.

Published on April 17, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.