This week I watched the extraordinary documentary The Six, and was immediately inspired to call up my friend Grant Din to ask him about it. In this post you’ll find my interview, the transcript, and details on how you can see The Six online in Canada and the USA.
Interview with Grant Din
LTY: The documentary The Six was released to Canadian audiences this week, and it’s about the six surviving Chinese passengers of the Titanic. If you’re thinking, “Which Chinese passengers of the Titanic?” you’re not alone. The sinking of the Titanic is the single most well-known, documented and researched shipwreck in the world. Historians have traced the movements of every known passenger, and that’s before Leo and Kate signed on to star in the movie.
Fans of Who do you think you are? will thoroughly enjoy this show, following an international team of researchers as they unravel the riddle of these forgotten men. This show is like my fantasy of what I’d like to do as a researcher: fly around the world to archives, find clues, tap experts and translators, ask every question that comes up, and bust that brick wall.
I sat down with one of the researchers. Meet Grant Din.
Grant Din has conducted genealogical research for over thirty-five years and currently serves on the board of the California Genealogical Society and consults on genealogical and nonprofit projects. He served on the staff of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation for eight years and currently volunteers there to manage the Immigrant Voices website with over 220 stories of West Coast immigrants from throughout the world. His research has taken him throughout California, China, and Japan to research his and his family’s journeys.
Grant holds a Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University, an M.A. in public policy analysis from Claremont Graduate University, and a B.A. in sociology with emphasis on urban studies from Yale University, and has traveled throughout the U.S., China, and Japan for his research. He has close to forty years of experience in the Bay Area non-profit sector and lives with his family in Oakland, CA.
I first met Grant in January 2020, when he presented a talk on Chinese American genealogy, and I later followed up with him on his work.
LTY: Hi, Grant.
GD: Hi, Linda.
LTY: Thank you so much for joining me today.
GD: It’s a pleasure to be here.
LTY: Okay, please tell me about yourself and how you got into genealogy.
GD: Sure. I am born and raised in Oakland and I went to school back east on in Connecticut and then worked in Oberlin, Ohio for a while as Asian American counselor at Oberlin College, and then came back to where I’ve been most of my life.
And I first got started, I think, thinking about genealogy or family history when my mom would tell us about where she lived in the Sacramento River Delta in California. It was a Chinatown in a small town. And she told me about going to a segregated school. And I was shocked at that I thought it only happened to blacks in the south. And so later on, learned more about the so called “Oriental Schools” in the central part of California.
And I kind of thought about that, but really got interested when, like a second cousin once removed, showed me a family tree of, I think it was probably at a wedding reception and pulled out this enormous tree. And I said, “Oh, we’re in the 36th generation of Gongs,” because I’m really a Gong and Din’s a paper name many times over. But, and showed me this tree. And I was just fascinated by, you know how much they could trace and didn’t think about it for a while. But later on, started doing research, went to the National Archives in San Bruno, found my grandparents’ Angel Island files and things like that. And it’s always that kind of sparked an interest.
And then later on when I got a job at the Angel Island immigration Station Foundation, helping on fundraising, I really got interested in in helping other people find their histories, because we had a family history, what was called the let’s see… immigrants… immigrant heritage wall, and people could honor their family members who immigrated, especially those who came through Angel Island, but we also have more recent immigrants on there. And so families would say, “Oh, I don’t know when my grandmother came through, or if she came through, can you help me find that.” And so I’d go to the National Archives and started digging around, you know, in San Bruno’s not too far from San Francisco. So I just found, I really had a love for that and really enjoy helping families, find them, learn more about their own histories.
LTY: It’s so incredible of you, Grant, to spend your time, not only what I’m hearing, paid, but also your volunteer time – I’m thinking – to help families find their family.
GD: It’s great fun. It’s very rewarding. People… people are just always amazed. “Ah, I didn’t know Grandma did this, or grandpa, you know, make these lies up.” It’s like…
LTY: Oh, I could… I could ask you so much about that.
LTY: So Grant, how did you hear about The Six documentary project.
GD: Sure. I was talking to Marisa Louie Lee one day. a fantastic genealogist who has worked at the National Archives. And she said she was approached by these filmmakers who are working on a film about the Chinese who had survived the Titanic. And of course, just like everyone else, I didn’t know that any Chinese had survived the Titanic. But she said she was expecting her second child and wouldn’t be able to take it on. So was I interested, and I said “Of course!” And so I talked to some of the filmmakers and said, “Yeah, sign me up,” and started learning as much as I could just from all the research their team had already done.
LTY: So, Grant, please describe for us what you did on this project. And please go into detail.
GD: Sure, a lot of the the movie it’s about the search for “the six.” There were eight Chinese, who were who got on the Titanic in Southampton, England, and six who are eight, the eight showed up on the manifest, ship manifests, going out, and six showed up arriving on The Carpathia, the rescue ship, arriving in New York, and most of the six were this details were different.
And so what the charge was for us researchers in London, New York, Bay Area – and especially China, where they had a whole team – was to try to find any descendants that they could try to dig up some details about, and the person who… the living person that we knew for sure, we wanted to connect to the Titanic was named Tom Fong. And if you see the trailer or the film, you’ll see a man who is about 60 years old. And we said, “How can he be 60 and have a father who was on the Titanic which crashed in 1912?” Well, his father had him relatively late in life, because of the Exclusion Acts, he couldn’t go to China and get married, and finally did when he was in his 50s or 60s. And so Tom had been told by a relative, “Oh, you know, your dad was on the Titanic.” And his dad had died, and never told him anything about, not only that, but nothing about his past.
So our charge was to try to, you know, find information similar, or any information about any of the six people. So we had people in England digging up details there, we had people in New York, and you know, all of us were trying to find things.
There’s a man named Ling Hee and the researchers had found two kind of documents that described him working on ships – all these men were working for the White Star Line as seamen, they were working in the boiler room, you know, shoveling coal into into the ships to power them. And so they were not working on the Titanic, but they were on the way to New York to work for other ships that were like fruit boats that that transported fruit from the Caribbean, back and forth to New York, and things like that. So we were trying to find, you know, were they, did they continue on these other ships? You know: where did they live? Do we know anything about their children, especially, so we can try to find that out, and things like that. So it was it was a challenging, but exciting test.
LTY: How long did you work on this project?
GD: It was really, the bulk of it was less than a year. They had, they wanted to get things done, I think back then it was early 2019. If I remember, right, I think I started working on 2018. And so we had maybe about six months to try to get as much as we could. Meanwhile, in in China, they were trying to track down families of some of the men, and that was fascinating as they did that work, and they discovered some really interesting things.
LTY: So you’ve, you’ve seen the documentary at which everyone will be able to get a chance to see it. But can you share a behind the scenes story with us?
GD: Sure. One of the things we’re trying to do is, since we weren’t actually physically in in one place that you know, I don’t know, all the things that were going on in China. I think they were in China, I’m not sure but or Beijing, but for us researchers, we would… anytime we’d find something we posted to WeChat, and everyone would say,”Oh, so and so was on the Annetta,” (you know, another the first ship they went on after they left The Titanic) from this time to this time. Oh, and someone would say, “Oh, I found… I would say… I found Fong Long on this ship on this date. Did anyone else find that?” and so, you know, genealogists, a lot of time we’re used to working kind of solo you know, you go into archiving, you use digging, digging. But this is fun because we are all feeding off each other and just sharing our knowledge and saying, “Oh, yeah, let me go look at this archive since I’m in New York City.”
LTY: So this film really highlighted what it’s like to work in Chinese genealogy. I personally learned a lot. What discoveries did you make?
GD: Oh, I’ve learned a lot about… I didn’t know much about the men who jumped ship. You know that that a lot of them. You know, we were used to looking for documents right? And so if if you ideally in like Chinese American or probably Chinese Canadian, I’m guessing research, you’ll find a document, you’ll find the ship manifest, or you find the actual questioning they went through on Angel Island or Seattle or somewhere else. And if you can find that, that’s really valuable, but what if there’s a, like a missing link in the trail that the person is filing for citizenship, for example, and says, “Oh, I arrived in New York on this date, but I don’t remember what ship.” And then there’s no documentation around. Well, I learned from Judy, the late Judy Yung, that there are thousands of Chinese, like people from other countries who were sailors, and they would get to port. And they be told, especially in the Chinese case, because you couldn’t immigrate here, “well, you have to stay on the ship.” But somehow they’d get off the ship. And so that’s something I learned a lot about, because some of the men we think, ended up in the US that way perhaps.
LTY: It’s… the entire documentary, is fascinating, honestly, I think it’s groundbreaking. And, and I personally related to it on so many different levels, you know, as a Chinese person, you know, and also a researcher, and even the description of some of the problems. And my head just about fell off the first ten minutes where, when the problems were being described, and I was like, “Yes, yes, that’s what it’s like, yes!” “We start off with we don’t know their names,” and I say, “Yes!”
GD: Right! And they go by three different names.
LTY: Right! If these things that you and I, you know, now you with your 35 years of experience, and me with less, but similarly, the first issue is, I feel like Grant, sometimes we start ten steps back of other researchers, because we have to figure out, “What is their name?” And, and then go from there.
GD: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes we, we have to go down many different paths, to try to find one thing, or sometimes though, the government will give us more detail than we ever expected, just because they were trying to keep us out of this country, or our ancestors. And so they would thoroughly document that, but it’s always a trade off. And that’s what makes it kind of exciting.
LTY: That’s such a good way to put it. Thank you for joining me this morning, Grant.
GD: Sure. I really appreciate your efforts to give people insights into the world of research for those of us in North America who are researching Chinese immigrants, and how frustrating but how exciting it can be and how rewarding and so good you’re putting this blog out. Well, thank you. Thanks a lot, Linda.
LTY: Bye Bye.
GD: Bye. Take care.
LTY: The Six is now playing virtually at the Vancouver Film Festival for Canadian audiences until Monday, October 11th, just in time for Thanksgiving. Details for the show, including its release to American audiences on October 16th, are in the links.
Thank you for watching.
See The Six
The Six is being released around the world but like everything else in life these days, is facing scheduling hiccoughs due to covid. For showtimes, I have provided details for Canada and the USA, but if there is a discrepancy between the information below and the official sites, please consult the official sites.
There are two chances to see this show online in Canada.
The Six is running virtually at the Vancouver Film Festival (VIFF) from now until Monday, October 11, 2021. Tickets are CAD$15 for a Video on Demand (VOD) pass, usable at any time during these dates. I was able to easily buy a ticket online through the website, then received a ticket by email. DO NOT CLICK THE WATCH BUTTON UNTIL YOU ARE READY to watch the show, but if you are mesmerized by the big yellow button and click it accidentally, you’ve still got 48 hours to watch it. HINT: If you are using Apple TV, use the Airplay mode, not the Screen Mirroring mode.
If you miss it, The Six will be running virtually at the KDOC Film Festival, Vancouver, BC, November 17-20, 2021.
Immigrant Voices, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation – A growing archive of personal stories of immigrants to the Pacific Coast from Angel Island Immigration Station detainees to those arriving today.
The Six, official website
Thank you to Grant Din, for not only sending me an email as soon as he’d heard about the Canadian release of The Six, but then for so generously agreeing to be interviewed at the last minute on Sunday morning. Also thanks to the team of researchers (including my friend Clothilde Yap of My China Roots), writers, editors, and everyone that works behind the scenes on a big project like this one, and to Steven Schwankert, who got the ball rolling. It is wonderful to see our stories on the big screen.