Yunte Huang is an English professor at UC Santa Barbara and the author of a wonderfully eye-opening earlier book, Charlie Chan: the Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, which traced the Charlie Chan story from the real-life Honalulu police investigator, Chang Apana, who inspired Earl Derr Biggers’ fictional detective, through to Charlie Chan’s impact on American culture and ideas about the racialized “other.”
In his new (similarly titled) book Huang explores the remarkable story of Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous “Siamese Twins” of the 19th century. In Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History, Huang tells the story of the conjoined twins’ improbable rise from a tiny fishing village in what is now Thailand, to their years of touring as “freaks of nature,” to their comfortable lives as slave-owning southern landowners in ante-bellum America (fathering 21 children between them) and on to their unhappy lives after the South’s defeat in the American Civil War.
He also does an excellent job job of placing the twins’ lives in the context of America’s civic life in the free-for-all years of the Age of Andrew Jackson and in Victorian era America’s strange vortex of race, class and sexuality.
The twins, who were joined at the sternum by a four inch piece of cartilage, were born to an ethnically Chinese family of fishermen and traders in 1811, in what was then the Kingdom of Siam. Locally they were known as the “Chinese Twins.”
A Scottish trader, Robert Hunter, happened to see the 17 year-old twins swimming in tandem in the local river one day and paid their mother $500 to allow him to exhibit the boys on a world-wide tour, promising to return them in five years time. She never saw them again.
Hunter, who claimed to have “discovered” the twins became their de facto owner along with his partner, an American adventurer named Captain Abel Coffin. Chang and Eng were set to a gruelling pace of shows and exhibitions in the United States, Canada and Britain.
As they matured they began to resent the second-class treatment they received from the men who considered them to be their property and chafed at their “owners” pocketing all of the profits.
When they reached the age of 21 they rebelled. They declared their independence and hired a manager and controlled their own appearances. They kept this up for seven years.
The twins were naturally thrifty and saved up $10,000 in earnings, a good sum in the early 1800s. They moved to rural North Carolina, built a large house, opened a dry goods store and began farming, first hogs and corn and later tobacco.
Huang does an excellent job of using contemporary sources and the brothers’ own meticulous bookkeeping records to follow their story. He also has many historical digressions that place Chang and Eng’s unusual lives in the context of current events and sociological trends.
In the South that Chang and Eng (or Chang-Eng as people often called them as if they were one single entity) settled, the racial divide was strictly between blacks and whites. Chinese hadn’t yet become a substantial immigrant group in the years before the Gold Rush and the building of the railroads.
As men of wealth and fame the brothers came to be regarded in many ways as “honorary whites.” They obtained American citizenship and were listed as “white” on most documents. Surprisingly, for men who had rebelled against being considered chattel themselves, they became slave owners and slave traders as well, owning 32 slaves at one point.
They were also avidly pro-Confederacy, sending one son each to fight on the rebel side in the Civil War. Eng even named one of his sons after the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Huang makes much of the irony of the former chattel slaves, freakish and foreign, identifying so readily with the white ruling class.
In 1843 they married two sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates, to the consternation and prurient wonderment of their neighbours and the nation’s penny press. Huang spends a chapter on the question of the physical and emotional gymnastics their sex lives must have necessitated, but in the end he can only speculate.
After the defeat of the Confederacy, Chang and Eng fell on hard times. Their slaves were now free and their savings were worthless. They went on the road again, but now as middle-aged men they were no longer the charismatic curiosities of earlier day. As Huang says, they appeared to be sad and pathetic.
Chang suffered a stroke in 1870 and became despondent and alcoholic. He died in 1874 and Eng spent his last hours still attached to his dead brother, terrified and inconsolable, before he too died.
Huang tells the improbable story of the twins with empathy and insight. He never lets us lose track of the fact that Chang and Eng were real people with real emotions, wants and needs and with their own share of flaws as well.
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang, Liveright, 416pp.