The original twins

The original twins

The 19th-century lives of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese twins”, were all the more extraordinary for how ordinary they became — at least according to what the times, and their conjoined bodies, would allow. Two boys from Siam, sharing an abdominal ligament and a liver, went from the humiliations of showcased servitude all across Andrew Jackson’s America to a life of Southern comfort in small-town North Carolina, fathering at least 21 children between them and at one point owning as many as 32 slaves.

“Regarded as freaks, the twins would always have to fight to be treated as humans,” Yunte Huang writes in Inseparable, his new history of the brothers.

That they would eventually identify as part of the white oppressor class that dehumanised others is one of many paradoxes explored by Huang — a professor of English and the author of Charlie Chan — in this contemplative yet engrossing volume.

Born in 1811 in a Siamese fishing village to an ethnically Chinese family, Chang and Eng turned 18 about a month into a 138-day journey to Boston Harbor.

They had been contracted into service by a Scottish businessman and an American captain, who promised the twins’ mother they would bring her sons back in five years. Chang and Eng would never see Siam or their family again.

What followed their arrival was a decade of touring the United States and England as “monstrosities” to be gawked at by paying crowds. But showbiz was only part of the attraction.

As Huang explains, the twins were also served up as scientific specimens “to be inspected, poked, tested and, most important of all, verified” by esteemed members of the medical establishment. Examining the twins, Boston doctor John Collins Warren jabbed their connecting band with a pin, recording the central point at which “both said it hurt”. 

Chang and Eng became an immediate national sensation, giving Huang a bounty of sources from which to choose when tracing the contours of their story. Modern writers like Mark Slouka and Darin Strauss have written novels based on the twins’ lives. A popular biography by Irving and Amy Wallace was published in the 1970s; more scholarly monographs have been published since.

In 1832, the year they turned 21, the brothers claimed their freedom from the captain and his wife, using the money they had saved up to declare their very own American independence, going boating at Niagara Falls and buying a horse named Bob. They became citizens in 1839. They were even able to marry white women. In 1843, Chang and Eng married Adelaide and Sarah Yates, two sisters from Wilkes County, a rural corner of North Carolina. The couples settled down just outside Mount Airy, North Carolina to make room for their sizable families.

Huang devotes a short chapter titled ‘Foursome’ to the question of sex. The couples had to deal with considerable physical and logistical challenges. (According to interviews with their widows, Chang and Eng would alternate weeks as the “complete master” who dictated how he wanted to go about business, with the other brother “blanking out”.) But the widespread social disapprobation that greeted their arrangement was beyond their control. The most vociferous indictments came from the abolitionist papers in the North, which declared “so bestial a union as this” yet another sign of how slavery had corrupted the Southern soul.

And the twins did seem determined to be identified as Southern gentry. In addition to owning slaves, they supported the Whigs and became ardent supporters of the Confederacy, sending two of their sons to fight in the Civil War.

Huang is right to point out the cruel irony in all of this, but when he characterises his subjects as “two brothers formerly sold into indentured servitude and treated no better than slaves,” he inadvertently downplays the incomparable brutality of the slaveholding system in order to heighten the contradictions.

As Huang shows elsewhere, Chang and Eng were treated better than slaves; if anything, what really rankled them were instances when they compared themselves to white men and felt they weren’t given the respect they were due — such as their first trans-Atlantic journey,  when they were booked in steerage rather than first class. In the excellent 2014 study, ‘The Lives of Chang and Eng’, Joseph Andrew Orser argues that the twins deliberately “made claims to whiteness”. 

When Huang visited Mount Airy, he learned of a Chang and Eng exhibit kept in the basement of the Andy Griffith Museum. In other words, a shrine to an American myth of old-timey homogeneity was literally built on the more convoluted reality. Huang knew that the symbolism was almost too much to bear: “As Sheriff Andy says, ‘If you wrote this into a play, nobody’d believe it’.”