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For the week of May 31 through June 6, 2000

The fascinating life of Chang and Eng

Novel explores the psychological life of the famed "Siamese Twins"


By HANS IBOLD
Express Staff Writer

They have been described as the eighth wonder of the world. Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined brothers for whom the term "Siamese twins" was coined, come to life in a fascinating, new historical novel, "Chang and Eng: A Novel," by David Strauss.

Chang and Eng have been the subject of countless newspaper articles, a handful of books, a poem by Mark Twain and a play.

In his first novel, Strauss provides what might be the only up-close, psychological portrayal of the twins. Through first-person narration by Eng, the twins emerge on the pages as two separate and extraordinary men.

Their lives, as revealed through Strauss’ fictionalized but historically accurate account, are indeed extraordinary.

Born in 1811 in a small village near Bangkok, Thailand (then Siam), Chang and Eng were joined at the lower chest by a flexible ligament of flesh. Their livers were connected and they shared a navel.

Siam was at the time a feudal society, steeped in superstition. When the twins were born none of the midwives would touch them for fear of becoming cursed. Doctors made offers to separate them with everything from saws to red-hot wires. Another threat came from Siam’s King Rama II, who issued a death warrant for the twins, which was never carried out.

When they were 17 years old, a British exporter persuaded the twins to leave Siam and embark on a world tour.

The shows, which were popular internationally, were bizarre. At their first showing in Boston in 1829, the twins simply stood on stage, demonstrated how they walked and ran and answered questions. At later shows, they would somersault, do backflips and carry audience members on stage.

In England, they added battledore and shuttlecock—a badminton-like game—to their act. The game is played by hitting a small cork ball with feathers on one side, back and forth.

The twins’ touring routine included an inspection by medical professionals in every town they visited. One doctor experimented by feeding asparagus to Chang. The doctor found that Chang’s urine had the smell of asparagus but that Eng’s did not.

The twins eventually settled down in Wilkesboro, N.C., where they started a small farm.

"Townspeople rushed at us from every direction," Eng narrates in the novel. "Dozens of unkempt children and their unkempt parents gathered around our carriage, pointing fingers. The rest of the population climbed on roofs for a better view. My brother grinned at them all. He delivered his patented wave, like a boy proving with a casual flick that his hand is clean on both sides—the motion Queen Victoria used to greet her masses."

In 1839, the twins won U.S. citizenship and adopted the last name "Bunker." At about the same time, they took an interest in two Wilkesboro sisters, Adelaide and Sally Yates.

"The dust of riding whisked us into Wilkesboro, the last stop on this junket of somersaults and smiles that spanned the eastern seaboard," Eng narrates. "I could not have imagined that in Wilkesboro we would meet the women who would—for all the kings I’d met and the nations I’d been—make up the kingdom in which I’d walk."

Chang fell in love first—to Adelaide, who was a year younger than her 18-year-old sister. Eng and Sally were drawn into a relationship by necessity.

The foursome married in 1843, moved into one house and shared a large custom-made bed built for four.

A year after marrying, Sally gave birth to a girl and six days later Adelaide also gave birth to a girl. Eng and Sally would produce 11 children. Chang and Adelaide were no less productive, siring 10 children.

One morning in January of 1874, Eng woke to find his brother dead. Eng died 30 minutes later. Chang died of a blood clot in his brain but the cause of Eng’s death remains a mystery.

Strauss is a graduate of New York University’s creative fiction writing program. His writing has appeared in GQ magazine and Time Out magazine.

 

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