On Monday, April 1st, the Colgate History Department hosted a lecture titled “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by author Yunte Huang, Professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Huang is a Guggenheim fellow, one of the highest scholarly honors, and author of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History. This talk focused on the incredible story of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins who triumphed over extraordinary odds in the 19th century and went on to become two of the most popular entertainers of their time. Huang details their fascinating story in his new book titled Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History and was kind enough to share it with the Colgate community.
Professor Graham Hodges introduced Huang, noting that he is not only an academic, but a distinguished poet and author as well. Professor Hodges is currently teaching a class about slavery and abolitionism, which interestingly enough intersects with Huang’s work as the twins owned slaves in the antebellum South. The talk began with a showing of the CBS Sunday Morning program on the twins, in which Huang was recently featured as an expert. The clip showed a Bunker family reunion in which Chang and Eng’s descendants got together and discussed which side of the family they were from: the Chang or the Eng side. Huang described how the pair was born in 1811 in Siam, now known as Thailand, and were discovered by a traveling Scottish businessman named Robert Hunter who brought them to America in 1829. They took the country by storm, touring with carnivals and presenting themselves as a curiosity, a modern form of entertainment at the time. The twins declared themselves free from their owner at age 21 and began running their own show. Eventually, tired from traveling the world as entertainers, they bought land and settled down in South Carolina and retired as incredibly wealthy world-travelers at the age of 28. However, the story did not end there. Chang and Eng did not escape from view, as they went on to court and marry sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates, daughters of a respected local landowner, in 1843. Collectively, the twins had 21 children.
Complex ideas about race intertwined throughout the lecture. The twins were essentially bought as slaves when they were first brought to America and were regarded as Asian “freaks” throughout their lives, yet married two white Southern Christian ladies and owned 32 slaves themselves, even sending sons to fight on the side of the Confederacy when the Civil War broke out. Furthermore, the popular freak shows that Chang and Eng were on the forefront of eventually turned into blackface and minstrel shows. Thus, Chang and Eng were a big part of the history of American entertainment and the racial prejudices that it was marked by. Huang emphasized throughout the lecture that although the twins were first regarded as “freaks,” they were truly “amazing, resourceful and inventive, and never gave up even though the odds were against them,” going on to live a wonderful life. In describing his work, Huang said, “I’m not a historian, I’m mostly a writer. How I tell the story is my major concern.”
Article and photograph by Karrie Spychalski ‘19.