Study of famous ‘Siamese Twins’ covers race, class and disabilities

By Kerry Gaynor
Murphy News Service

Circus “freak” sideshows might seem like a taboo topic for academia, but not for Joseph Orser.

In a lecture at the University of Minnesota Tuesday afternoon Orser discussed the topic of his recent book: the original “Siamese,” or conjoined, twins who came to prominence in 19th century America. Chang and Eng, born in 1811 in Siam (now modern-day Thailand), lived attached at the chest by a band of skin and cartilage.

Orser, a professor of history and English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said he was interested in how1800s race, class and deformity shaped the Twins’ lives in the U.S.

Orser’s Lind Hall lecture was presented by the U’s English and Asian American Studies departments. Twenty or so people attended the talk, snacking on the provided egg and spring rolls, coffee and soft drinks. Even with the day’s snowy forecast, organizers opened windows to alleviate the building’s heat.

Prior to the wave of 19th century Chinese immigration, Orser said, Chang and Eng were brought to the United States by an American man looking to profit off of their “monstrosity” in exhibition shows. At the time, America was a racial binary of black and white and did not truly have a social concept of “Asian” as a racial “other,” Orser explained.

Eventually, the twins left show business and tried to attain a level of economic and social prosperity enjoyed by many whites. Taking the Anglo last name of “Bunker,” they settled in rural North Carolina and became slaveholding farmers. The twins married a pair of sisters, Adelaide and Sarah, and fathered 21 children between them.

The twins died within two and a half hours of one another in January 1874 at the ages of 62.

Orser’s book, “The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam’s Twins in the Nineteenth-Century,” is available through the University of North Carolina Press.

Reporter Kerry Gaynor is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.

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