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 Siams 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 shuttlecocka badminton-like
gameto 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 Changs urine had the smell of asparagus but that
Engs 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 sidesthe 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
wouldfor all the kings Id met and the nations Id beenmake up the
kingdom in which Id walk."
Chang fell in love firstto 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 Engs
death remains a mystery.
Strauss is a graduate of New York Universitys creative fiction
writing program. His writing has appeared in GQ magazine and Time Out magazine.