Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Chang and Eng—How Two Freaks Became Southern Aristocrats

A British colored wood cut by by H.S. Miller of Chang and Eng in their post-Civil War comeback.

On August 16, 1829 two young immigrant brothers arrived in Boston.  Nothing much unusual in that, except that instead of being Europeans they were from the Kingdom of Siam.  And, by the way, they were co-joined twins, linked at the sternum by a sliver of cartilage and a bit of liver, although each man had a complete and fully functioning organ.  They came to America, like so many other immigrants, to seek their fortune.  They did better than most.  Their story says a lot about 19th Century America, class, and race.
Chang and Eng were born to a village fisherman and his wife, both of Chinese origin, on May 11, 1811.  Other than the narrow strip that united them, they were normal and healthy babies.  As children they were lively and noted for their intelligence.  But they were always a curiosity.  In their native land they were called Chinese twins because of their ethnicity.  They were already making a living by showing themselves when they were “discovered” in Bangkok by British seaman Robert Hunter who successfully exhibited them on a world tour that eventually brought them to Boston.
Chang and Eng were already displaying themselves before they ever left Asia.
They were quick to learn English and eventually learned to both read and write.  They were also shrewd businessmen and once liberated from Hunter’s contract, marketed their own careers.  They toured extensively appearing in both “native” costume and in the dress of respectable Western gentlemen.  
As their English improved they added a lecture, tales of their travels and adventures, and answered questions from the audience, bantering back and forth freely with them.  In 1839 they took the savings of ten years on the road and bought a farm near Wilkesboro, North Carolina, became American citizens, and legally adopted the English surname Bunker.  Again they did well, soon expanding their holdings to a plantation and buying slaves to work it.  Chang and Eng were well thought of, even respected, by their neighbors.  Perhaps because Asians were so rare, they do not seem to have ever been the victims of racial prejudice in their adopted home.   
On April 13, 1843 Chang wed Adelaide Yates and Eng her sister Sarah.  The two couples shared an extra large bed. They retired from show business to devote themselves to their plantation and to raising families.  Chang and his wife had 10 children; Eng and his wife had 11.  In time, the stress of such a large household set the two sisters to squabbling. 
Each brother purchased his own plantation near Mount Airy, North Carolina—the same town later to become famous as the inspiration for Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.  The couples and their broods would spend three days at one home, where the wife could be undisputed queen of the household, then spend the next three days at the other.  One imagines that the situation was far from ideal, but it served them well.  

Chang and Eng Bunker with their wives Adelaide (left) and Sara (right) with some of their children and grand children.  Note the Black servant holding the sleeping toddler to the right.

As their oldest sons neared college age, they decided to come out of retirement to raise money for their education.  In 1860 they signed on with the greatest American showman, Phineas T. Barnum, who featured them at his American Museum.  But Barnum’s ardently Unionist views and support of abolition, clashed with the Bunker brother’s devotion to the Confederacy. 
Soon they were back home and instead of going to college  Chang’s son Christopher and Eng’s son Stephen both joined the Rebel army.  At war’s end the two families had lost their slaves and much of the estates they had worked to build. 
Both men were very bitter and like many of their neighbors became ardent champions of the Lost Cause.  After the war to recoup their losses they again resorted to public exhibitions, but were not very successful.  American taste in entertainment was drifting away from fascination with freaks.  They would have done better to re-unite with Barnum and perhaps join his new venture, a traveling circus. 
On January 17, 1874 Eng awoke to find his brother dead. He refused and emergency operation to be separated from his dead brother and died three hours later. Chang’s wife died in 1892 and Eng’s wife lived on until 1917.  

Banker and Florida Democratic Party political figure Alex Sink is just one of hundreds of descendants of Chang and Eng Bunker, many prominent figures in their communities and professions.
Their many children mostly prospered and many folks in North Carolina can trace heritage to the brothers.  Contemporary descendants include Air Force Major General Caleb V. Haynes and Adelaide “Alex” Sink, the former Chief Financial Officer of Florida and the Democratic candidate for governor in a 2010.
The story of Chang and Eng continues to fascinate.  Mark Twain based his short story The Siamese Twins on them.  A Singapore musical, Chang & Eng premiered in 1997 and has been performed with great success across Asia.  In 2000 Darin Strauss published an award-winning bestselling novel, Chang and Eng which actor/producer Gary Oldman tried to develop for the screen 

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