Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth-Century America

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth-Century America

Article excerpt

The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth-Century America. By Joseph Andrew Orser. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Pp. [xii], 259. $28.00, ISBN 978-1-4696-1830-2.)

Conjoined at birth, Chang and Eng became nineteenth-century sensations as the "Siamese twins" who toured the United States and abroad before retiring to raise families in rural North Carolina (p. 1). The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam's Twins in Nineteenth-Century America is not a traditional biography, but rather a systematic and rigorous examination of the "lived experiences and discursive representations" of the twins, aimed at understanding nineteenth-century notions of race, deformity, gender, and sexuality (p. 206). Meticulously researched, Joseph Andrew Orser's book provides new information on the twins as it details how the men profited from being "abnormal" yet nonetheless tried to fashion for themselves a measure of normality in American society.

Biographical details of the twins' lives are scattered throughout the book. Chang and Eng were born in 1811 in a village sixty miles from Bangkok. Joined at the chest by a small band of cartilage, the boys were a curiosity in their own country before leaving for America when they were eighteen years old. Under the care of different managers, Chang and Eng prospered as they went from city to city, giving performances that featured their unique physiognomy and also highlighted their distinctive wit and innate intelligence. At the age of twenty-eight, Chang and Eng retired from touring and settled down in western North Carolina. The brothers bought land in Wilkes County, adopted the surname Bunker, courted and then wed local sisters Sarah Ann and Adelaide Yates, set up two households, managed two plantations, bought slaves, and began their lives as southern gentlemen. The Bunkers were among the wealthiest men in the county and enjoyed a comfortable life as patriarchs of two large families, between them fathering twenty-one children. They returned to touring whenever they needed funds, but generally the twins preferred to live an uneventful life in the country. …

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