Thursday, 8 July 2010

CHANG AND ENG, THE SIAMESE TWINS...


The term Siamese Twins was popularised by Chang and Eng, the co-joined identical brothers who were born in Siam (what we now know as Thailand) on May 11, 1811. They were connected at the chest by a thick band of skin and although their livers were linked, in this day and age they could have been surgically separated.  Then, their mother refused any attempt, fearing that one of her sons might die, instead helping to gradually stretch the band of flesh that bound them together, until they could stand side by side rather than always being face to face.
Ironically, while growing up in Siam, the two boys were known as The Chinese Twins – owing to their father being Chinese and their mother half Chinese, half Malay.  When first born, they were viewed as a bad omen, and some said they hailed the end of the world, but as time passed their celebrity brought fame and prosperity to their village.
In 1828, the twins were discovered by an English trader called Robert Hunter who, along with his accomplice, the wonderfully named Captain Abel Coffin, took the boys on a tour of America and Europe – except for France where they were denied admission. They proved to be very successful, even meeting with royalty, but in 1832 they disposed of their managers’ services and set up in business with P T Barnum.
Both being drawn to America, in 1839 they retired to North Carolina where they purchased a plantation.  In 1844, they took the surname of Bunker and became United States citizens, by then both having married – Eng to Sarah Ann Yates, and Chang to her sister, Adelaide.
It was an interesting domestic arrangement in which the two couples shared a bed, especially constructed to accommodate four adults. But, despite many children being born – ten to Adelaide and Chang, and eleven to Sarah and Eng, the course of true love did not run smoothly. The sisters - who look rather formidable - began to argue between themselves and two separate households were then set up  - the twins spending three days at a time in each.
After the American Civil War, when their plantation home and slaves were lost, the twins were forced to go back on the stage. But, they never achieved quite the same success as that attained in earlier years.
A drawing of the autopsied twins
Chang and Eng died on the same day in January 1874. Chang had contracted pneumonia and when Eng woke to find his brother dead, despite pleas from his nearest and dearest to allow a visiting doctor to perform an emergency separation, Eng refused to be parted from Chang and died within a matter of hours.The twins bodies were then autopsied and their fused liver is still preserved at the Mutter Museum in Pensylvania.
Mark Twain wrote a short story based on the brothers which is called The Siamese Twins.
In 2000 Darin Strauss wrote his novel, Chang and Eng which went on to win several awards.  After reading the following description, taken from Publishers Weekly, the VV will definitely be ordering  a copy of this book.
In his stunning debut, Strauss fictionalizes the lives of famous conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, whose physical oddity prompted the term Siamese twins. With compelling characterizations and precise, powerful prose, this audacious work should appeal equally to fans of historical, psychological and literary fiction. Born in the Kingdom of Siam in 1811, the twins... are completely separate individuals with different personalities and needs. Serious and reserved Eng narrates their story, which begins on their parents' boat on the Mekong River...An unscrupulous American promoter brings them to America in 1825. Eng reads Shakespeare, preaches temperance and, all his life, wishes desperately to be separated. Chang is outgoing and garrulous, drinks heavily (which angers Eng, who must also experience the effects of Chang's indulgence) and cannot see himself as less than two. As young boys, the first time the brothers see other children their own age, their philosophical differences are apparent: "'They are half formed!' Chang whispered. To me [Eng] they seemed liberated." The brothers find celebrity as a circus act (displayed in a cage) in the U.S. and abroad...The author gracefully confronts the complicated issues of race, gender, infidelity, and identity, as well as the notion of what is normal. Strauss's vivid imagination, assiduous research and instinctive empathy find expression in a vigorous, witty prose style that seduces the reader and delivers gold in a provocative story of two extraordinary men who wish only to be seen as ordinary.

9 comments:

  1. Wonderful post. I remember reading a bit about the twins years ago. Theirs is a fascinating story and you've brought to light special details that make it even more interesting.

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  2. Thank you, Kate - I really can't wait to read this book and am surprised that I don't recall hearing about it before. Apparantly, Gary Oldman has bought the film rights.

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  3. As soon as I saw the post title I was going to ask if you'd read Darin Strauss's brilliant book! It's one of my favourite historical novels of recent years.

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  4. Caro - it's on order!

    I love the new things I'm finding out simply by researching for this blog.

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  5. How interesting - thanks for sharing and filling me in!
    Hannah

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  6. Great and informative post. I remembered bits of this story as I read your post. It was stuck somewhere in the recesses of my memory. I just can't yet place where I heard or read it. It will come to me, I am sure!

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  7. Thank you for the post.

    As you may have read, Alex Sink, a great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker is running for Governor in the state of Florida.

    Here is an article on her from 2006, when she ran for another state office. http://www.sptimes.com/2006/06/11/State/Twins__great_granddau.shtml

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  8. Brian, I didn't know that. How fascinating. Thank you so much for posting.

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  9. Great post, but I have a feeling that the photo of the boys in the white pants cannot be Chang and Eng. The photo of the boys looks like they are about 10-13 years old. The thing is that Chang and Eng would have been about that age somewhere around 1821-1825. Photography was in its absolute infancy then, and would probably not been as clear as this photo. This photo appears to have been taken around 1860-1890...I really think these must be other Siamese twins.

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