The real origins of the first Siamese twins

Life is complex and history even more so. But understanding how people and societies change gives us a better understanding into ourselves. That’s why a new book, Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History
by Yunte Huang is so fascinating. The story of Chang and Eng Bunker who were essentially the world’s first widely known conjoined twins is also the story of race and racism, class and classism in the 19th century.  

Born in Siam (now Thailand) in 1811 on a houseboat the boys grew up rather unremarkably at first until 1819 when a cholera outbreak killed 20% of the Thai population and half of the twins family, including their father. But the real tragedy was to visit them 10 years later when a Scottish businessman named Robert Hunter took them away from Thailand and thrust them into the glare of the western world as a sideshow attraction.

Chang and Eng would spend much of their remaining 45 years being gawked at across Europe and the United States. But far from losing their dignity, the twins usually displayed a stoic and dignified defiance. When that wasn’t enough, they weren’t opposed to physically fighting back.

Eventually they left the bonds of Robert Hunter and struck out on their own. And here’s where the story really gets interesting. At the ripe age of 21 they bought a house in Mount Airy, N.C., and married two Southern sisters. This not only created widespread outrage but also broke the laws of the day which forbade mixed-race marriage.

The twins were both heroes and villains as were many people at that time
Despite the logistical challenge of being joined by only a few inches of cartilage and a liver they fathered 21 children between them and built good lives. However there is a dark side to the twins. Despite essentially being held in bondage themselves and exploited for another’s gain, the twins were slave owners and were devout Confederates during the American Civil War. this part of their lives shows the deep complexities of humanity.

This is a book which is a good read, not only because it traces the history of Asian and European mores, but becasue it uses famous historical characters to explain how societies have changed. It’s worth the read.AsiaA