Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History
by Yunte Huang
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Copyright 2018 by the author
I doubt there are many people who haven’t heard of Chang and Eng Bunker, the “archetype” of Siamese Twins. There have been a few biographies of the pair, but this is the first I’ve come across. They led a fascinating and complex life, that just happened to coincide with a fascinating and complex era of American history.
Huang, who previously wrote a “biography” of Charlie Chan (in which he covered the lives of Werner Oland, the actor who first portrayed the character in film, Earl Biggers, who wrote the novels, and Chang Apana, the Honolulu policeman who was the inspiration for the character), applies his considerable skills to a real person – or is it real people? He barely touches on the conundrum of whether Chang and Eng should be considered one person or two. To be fair, I don’t think that question has an answer….
What Huang does touch on is the social and cultural background they lived in. Thanks to the extensive bookkeeping of the Engs, one can trace their travels with great accuracy. A stay in Rochester NY leads to some comments on the Second Great Awakening (more on that here), for example. The phrenology fad that swept the nation at the time comes up for discussion. And Huang finds hints of them in the works of writers like Mark Twain and Herman Melville.
It’s often commented that the pair were essentially exploited by their manager, who paraded them around like freaks. Well, at the time, society didn’t really know how to handle those who looked very different. One didn’t often find Chinese people outside of the major port cities…. And it must be noted that the twins did indeed quit/fire their manager when they turned twenty-one. I think it’s entirely probable that they could not have been “independent” businessmen prior to their reaching that age, so it really shouldn’t be cause for excessive complaining.
Huang does talk in generalities about their love lives, but other than discussing their courtship (they married sisters) and household arrangements (an extra large bed), the details are quite properly left for speculation. Love found a way; and we most certainly don’t need to know any more.
The twins settled in the western hill country of North Carolina, where their earnings from their travels let them live comfortably. They purchased slaves to help manage their place, and supported the Confederacy during the Civil War…..
Bet you didn’t see that coming!
Huang also finds it interesting (and gets much mileage out of the fact) that the town where the Engs settled is also the birthplace of Andy Griffith, and was the inspiration for Mayberry. He does his best to connect the two, but he doesn’t quite manage. I don’t think anyone could, honestly.
If you’re interested in a little bit of the history of American popular culture, or just wanted to know more about Chang and Eng, this is well worth your time.