'Inseparable' Recounts The Unusual Lives Of Conjoined Twins Chang And Eng Bunker

Apr 2, 2018
Originally published on April 3, 2018 2:20 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest has written a new book that raises fascinating historical, cultural and existential questions. It's about two people who you could also describe as one person. You've probably heard of them but also probably don't know much about them. They are Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, two conjoined twins born in 1811 who grew up in a Chinese community in Siam, which is now known as Thailand.

The new book "Inseparable" tells the story of how they were taken to the U.S. at the age of 17 by two men who sensed they could make money by marketing the twins as freaks and charging admission to see them. The twins were treated as slaves but eventually negotiated their independence, kept their subsequent profits, bought land in Mount Airy, N.C., the town Mayberry was modeled on, married two sisters - and here's the really disturbing twist - they became slave owners. After they died, an autopsy was performed to understand more about their unique anatomy. The autopsy revealed that their liver was connected. That liver remains on exhibit at the Mutter Museum, a medical history museum in Philadelphia.

Author Yunte Huang grew up in China and was one of the students in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. He's now a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Yunte Huang, welcome to FRESH AIR. Describe for us how Chang and Eng were physically joined.

YUNTE HUANG: Well, there was a band of flesh, which was about 4 inches long, that tied them at the bases of their chests. So it's the - where the livers are. And so it was, you know - it was 4 inches long, but over the years, you know, through wear and tear, it was stretched to about 5 1/2 inches in length.

GROSS: So they were called Siamese twins because they were from Siam, which is now Thailand.

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: But they were part of the Chinese community in Siam. They were 17 when they were taken to America. Who took them, and why?

HUANG: Well, they were born of a Chinese father and a Siamese and Chinese mother. To their neighbors in Thailand at the time, they were actually called Chinese twins, not Siamese twins. So Siamese twins was a more kind of American brand when they came to the United States. So they were growing up in Siam in this kind of fishing village. And one day, they were swimming in the river in the canal, and they were discovered by this traveling Scottish businessman by the name of Robert Hunter. And he thought he saw something kind of mysterious, kind of creature literally walking out of Greek mythology, almost. And when he got closer, he realized it was actually two boys joined together. And so he immediately realized it was a business opportunity. And so he tried to talk to the boys, but also to the mother - and trying to convince them that he would take them back to England or United States, you know, for a touring exhibition.

But the Siamese king, actually, did not approve. Everything in the kingdom at the time belonged to the king. A few years later, Robert Hunter got help from an American ship captain by the name of Abel Coffin. So he eventually basically bribed the king and also kind of convinced the king that if you let these boys of their - you know, your kingdom, you can show the world how wonderful your kingdom is that is able to produce such wonder boys. So eventually, they were let go, and that's when Abel Coffin brought the boys to the United States in 1829.

GROSS: So Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins, were a kind of self-contained act. They weren't part of a circus or a carnival. They weren't part of a larger sideshow. They toured as the Siamese twins. Like, what did you see when you went to see them? Did they perform? Did you just get to look at them? Were the viewers encouraged to touch them?

HUANG: Uh-huh. They were just displayed as freaks of nature. And in the beginning, they were just basically, you know, being viewed, and they also take some Q&A. But they also, very quickly, develop some repertoire, such as, like, they can do, like, backflips together and do somersaults. And they will also, say, take some questions from the audience and Q&A. And they were actually, you know, remarkably talented entertainers. They have this kind of good nature and, you know, country boy's shrewd and simple wit. And so one time, there's a one-eyed man in the audience. And when the twins saw the man, he decided to refund, you know, half of his admission fee because they said, you know, he cannot see as much as others.

GROSS: So when Chang and Eng were touring, who made the money? Was it the people who brought them from Siam, now Thailand, to the U.S.?

HUANG: So they arrived in 1829, and they were basically exploited like slaves. And, of course, Coffins, you know, pocketed all the money. And so they felt very resentful. But because they were tricked into signing a contract with Coffin and Hunter - Hunter eventually sold his share. But over the years, they became resentful at exploitation, and they tried to break free from them. And they eventually succeeded. It was a long negotiation. When they turned 21, actually, while Coffin was traveling overseas on business, they wrote a letter to Mrs. Coffin, Susan Coffin, saying, you know, we are now turning 21; we are going to be on our own. And she, of course, panicked and calling them, you know, ungrateful and how well, you know, you've been treated by us and everything. And they wrote back saying, you know, well, you pocketed all the money and everything.

Eventually, actually, it was in Buffalo, N.Y., they wrote the last, sort of, kind of long letter to the Coffins - and this is sort of their declaration of independence listing all the grievances against the exploitation and the maltreatment by the Coffins and everything - and ended up with the line, we are on our own. They hire a manager who will work for them, not the other way around, and they continue to do the show for another seven or eight years until 1839. So in the beginning, the first two or three years, they basically, you know, were exploited by their owners. And then they turned around, and freed themselves and were very successful in making money for themselves.

GROSS: So one of the fascinating things about Chang and Eng is that after being exploited by the people who basically owned them, they negotiated their way out of the contract. They insisted on their own independence. They toured on their own, made money, settled in North Carolina and eventually, like, married. They married two sisters (laughter).

HUANG: Right (laughter).

GROSS: And they had slaves because they're living in the South. It was before the Civil War. And it's just a remarkable turn in the story, that these two conjoined twins who were basically treated as slaves, who were treated as - basically as property of the people who discovered them and, you know, acted as if they owned them, they eventually become prosperous enough to buy slaves themselves and apparently see nothing wrong with that. Apparently, they don't identify at all with the people who they are treating as possessions, as less than human.

HUANG: They are not just, you know, owning slaves. They're also very - I should say very shrewd in terms of what kind of slaves they want to own. So they bought - they got their first slave as a wedding gift from their father-in-law - this Afro-American woman by the name of Grace Gates. But within two years after their marriage, when they moved to next town to bigger land, they started buying more slaves. So they bought two girls, age seven and five, and another black boy, age three.

And within a few years - actually according to our 1850 census - they owned 18 slaves at least - and half of whom actually were less than 8 years old. So they were actually buying, you know, this much younger slaves not to, of course, work in the field. I think they're buying for them for two reasons - first of all, that the future prospect of selling them when they, you know, grow older. And the other thing is that, you know, the younger slaves will be less likely to run away. And so they are kind of shrewd in that regard.

GROSS: So let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more.

HUANG: OK, sure.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Yunte Huang, the author of the new book "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins And Their Rendezvous With American History." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAXTER DURY SONG, "LEN PARROT'S MEMORIAL LIFT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Yunte Huang, the author of the new book "Inseparable" about the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng who came here from Siam - now Thailand - in 1829 and basically became like a traveling freak show - ended up making a lot of money on it and settling in the South. And Yunte Huang now teaches American literature at the University of California in Santa Barbara. And his previous book was about the history of Charlie Chan.

So Chang and Eng get married. They want to get married. They wonder who's going to be willing to marry them. But they find two sisters. So one marries Chang, and one marries Eng. And, of course, everybody wants to know at the time, like, what is their relationship? Do they have sex? And the answer is like, yeah, they had 21 children. That's a lot of children.

HUANG: Exactly.

GROSS: So not to be prurient here, but like what were you able to learn about what their conjugal relations were like? Did all four of them engage in relations at the same time? Was there one set of partners at a time who had relations? Did they alternate? Like, you need - I think you probably need a plan in a situation like that.

HUANG: Well, they do.

GROSS: You need an agreement.

HUANG: No, actually they do. They have very clearly stated agreement. And here's how it goes. So when they're first married, they were still living in this big house in Traphill in Wilkesboro County. And I guess the wedding night - you know, it's the four of them. But very soon they bought, you know, another land - a piece of plateau land and built two houses. To learn this kind of, you know, skill, which is called alternate mastery. And this is just a technique used by some other Siamese twins as well - especially later on, for instance, with Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Hilton sisters. They basically propagated this notion or this skill which is that when - if Daisy, let's say, is dating or having sex with a man, Violet, the other twin, will basically do this kind of mental blank-out. She will either take a nap or read a book.

With Chang and Eng, however, their arrangement - not just the mental mastery but also through these very rigid arrangement - and they stuck to it actually all those years - which is that for three days they will live under, you know, one roof. Let's say in Chang's house with Chang's wife. And they will - the three of them sleep in one bed. Three days later, they will move on to Eng's house for another three days with Eng's wife. And depending whose roof it's under - if it's in Chang's house, then basically Eng will give up his will, as a human being in some ways, so Chang can decide whatever, you know, he wants to do and vice versa. Three days later, they will go back and do, you know - and Eng will be the master of the house. So in this way, there are no competing, you know, human wills under one roof.

GROSS: It must've been very hard for the person who wasn't the master for those few days because you have to just like turn yourself off.

HUANG: Correct. And that's how they live to cope with it, right? You know, that's how they survived and flourished for, you know, all those years really.

GROSS: Coming home from their last tour...

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: ...Chang had a stroke. He was paralyzed on one side. So Eng basically had to drag around Chang.

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: And then Chang dies, and Eng survives a few hours longer.

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: And reading your book, I just kept thinking what is a - what was it like for Eng when his conjoined twin first had a stroke and then died? Can you imagine being a conjoined twin, and the other half of you has died? And you know the end's coming for you. But in the meantime, you're alive. But you're conjoined twin is dead.

HUANG: Yeah, this is - I mean, this is kind of ontological shift...

GROSS: Yeah.

HUANG: ...In some ways. You know, there were so used to being together. And this is one of the lessons I think we take away from their story is that - what does it mean to be human? And I think that the Chang and Eng answer that being human always, you know, means being more than one. And so those few hours after Chang died or when Eng realized that his brother had died, those were absolutely, you know, I think horrifying hours for him. And he actually begged his, you know, wife and the kids to wrap his legs because he was feeling cold. Those few hours after Chang died was, you know, an unthinkable few hours for Eng.

And the doctors initially planned to separate them if Chang dies. But unfortunately, the doctor didn't get there in time. And the twins, throughout their lives, there are different periods when - for instance, before their marriage to the two sisters, they actually wanted to have a surgery. They consulted with the Philadelphia doctors. They wanted to separate from each other, so they can live, quote, unquote, "normal - a normal life." Strangely, it was their wives - actually future wives - who objected vehemently, saying that it's too dangerous for you guys to go through that procedure, that we will take you, accept you, you know, as you are.

GROSS: Is there a question you most wish you could have asked the twins?

HUANG: Oh, absolutely. The question I really want to ask them was that why did you guys never go home?

GROSS: Back to Siam.

HUANG: Because they love Siam - Siam, yeah. They - you know, they left at the age of 17, you know, had a teary farewell to their mother and their, you know, siblings. But they never went back. And for me, as an immigrant, you know, coming to this country, nostalgia is - you know, old country always, you know, tugs at your heart for every day or - if not every moment. And so I'm very curious to know why they never went back at least for a visit.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Yunte Huang. And his new book is called "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins And Their Rendezvous With American History." We'll take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS AND BLACKOUT'S "UNTIL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Yunte Huang, author of the new book "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins And Their Rendezvous With American History." And Yunte Huang emigrated from China to the United States in 1991, first as a student, and then he eventually became an American citizen.

Well, let's talk about your story. You grew up in a small town in China, in the...

HUANG: Right.

GROSS: ...Countryside.

HUANG: Yes, quite rural.

GROSS: So you started to learn English at age 11. You said you secretly listened to the "Voice Of America" broadcasts on an old transistor radio. And that's how you first started learning English. Why did you have to listen secretly?

HUANG: Well, I could have sent my parents to jail during those years. But the first year of...

GROSS: Wait, you could've sent them to jail because it was against...

HUANG: Because I was listening.

GROSS: ...The communist rules to listen to the "Voice Of America."

HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. It was dangerous. Listening to politically subversive, you know, programs, radio programs, easily could have sent your parents to jail. I wouldn't go to jail, but my parents would. So anyway, you know, I started learning English at school in middle school, and I learned a little. And then one day, I was playing with this kind of battered transistor radio that had belonged to my grandfather. And then my sister inherited it, and she had no use for it, so it was lying around. And one day, I was just playing with it, and at one point, I turned the dial, and then suddenly, you know, a kind of - a manly voice came out in the dark like, this is the "Voice Of America" broadcasting in special English - special English because it's spoken slower, you know, than normal speed to help us understand. And I was hooked.

But, of course, you know, only later on did I realize it's all, you know - it's State Department Cold War propaganda as well. But I would listen to a lot of others as well. I expanded my repertoire (laughter). So I was - I also listened to BBC. I listened to radio stations, you know, from - broadcasted from Taiwan. And there was a lot of propaganda in that as well trying to create some, you know, resentment against communism and everything. But mostly I learned a great deal of English from all these programs.

GROSS: So you went to Beijing University, and you were one of the student protesters in Tiananmen Square at the start of the students' pro-democracy protests in the late '80s.

HUANG: Right. We all were. We all were, really.

GROSS: And these protests ended with martial law and then with Chinese troops with guns and tanks massacring student protesters. But when the tanks and guns moved in, you weren't there because you had gotten a message from your family. Explain what happened.

HUANG: Well, my mother tricked me out of that (laughter). So the protests lasted for months, from April all the way to June. Toward the - the last day of May, I got a telegram from my family claiming that my mother was, you know, gravely ill. Come back home soon or immediately. So I packed up right away, just a small bag. I hop on the train. And in those years, there was no, you know, speed train in China. So it took me three days and nights to get home.

So I got home, my parents' house, at crack of dawn. And I saw my mother standing, you know, outside our house with a smile on her face. And I said, Mom, aren't you sick? She said, well, I was just worried because things are getting really bad in Beijing. And within a day or so, you know, there was the crackdown. And I was really mad at her for taking me out of that, you know, out of action. But on the other hand, I could have been killed, certainly.

GROSS: Did you have friends who were killed in Tiananmen Square?

HUANG: Sure, of course, yes.

GROSS: Did you feel guilty for surviving or grateful that you survived and weren't there?

HUANG: Well, that's why I was so mad at my mom (laughter). That was why, and that's why, you know, I feel, you know, all hope is - was lost and there was no way I will stay in the country after I graduate. And so I decided to leave. And I wanted to go to the United States to study or to do whatever just leave the country. So I went to the school library at Peking University. In the reference room, I pulled down from the shelf this blue-covered, you know, "Peterson's Guide To U.S. Colleges And Universities." And then Tuscaloosa, Ala., was the one school that accepted me with full scholarship. And that's how I came.

GROSS: So this was - what? - in the early '90s.

HUANG: Yes, I arrived in Tuscaloosa in the summer of 1991.

GROSS: Were there any other Asians in Tuscaloosa when you moved there?

HUANG: So when I arrived in Alabama in 1991 - and even in those years, I didn't really fit in to this kind of black and white, you know, bifurcation of a sudden, you know, society. And, of course, things even - got even more interesting for me when I opened a restaurant there and started working, you know, and delivering food around town and had more contact with the folks down there. And so today, I'm still, you know, thinking about those years I was struggling, you know, in Deep South.

But anyway, I have to tell you this story - that it was in those years when I was - I thought, you know, my life sort of hitting rock bottom in some ways, as a struggling Chinese restauranteur-student delivering boxes of, you know, steaming Chinese food all over town in Tuscaloosa, I listened to your program all the time whenever I could.

And every time I jumped into, you know, my car to deliver food, I would turn in local NPR. And you were usually on the - on air like 6 or 7 o'clock in the evening. And that was the busiest time for delivery. So I was listening to you all the time. And every time you say, you know, this is Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR, you were literally kind of breathing a breath of fresh air into my life at that time. So I'm deeply grateful, Terry.

GROSS: Well, I really appreciate that a lot. Thank you for saying that. Did it help listening to my guests speak to pick up more English - kind of like you did...

HUANG: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...In the Voice Of America?

HUANG: I was partly really learning English from it, and I was also watching "David Letterman" after, you know, we close shop. When I went home, I will turn on "David Letterman." I actually will keep a notebook in hand. I turn on the caption. And so I pick up, you know, the lexicon, the, you know - and phrases I find interesting...

GROSS: Like stupid pet tricks?

HUANG: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

HUANG: Exactly. Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: You teach American literature now, right?

HUANG: Yes.

GROSS: And what's your favorite book to teach now?

HUANG: Right now, it's actually "Moby-Dick" because of Melville's experience of having crossed the horizon. As you know, his first book is called "Typee," right? He joined - you know, signed up on a whaler, but he jumped ship and lived among, you know, Polynesians for six weeks - although he exaggerated in his book by claiming, you know, he lived among them for six months. When he came back, he is a changed man. So Melville, to me, is an example of somebody who actually has crossed borders, you know, across the horizon. And they come back and turn out to be a very different person. And that experience, to me, is quite important.

GROSS: He's crossed borders, and he became one of the defining authors of American literature at the same time?

HUANG: Right, exactly. What he brought back from the Pacific I thought was a kind of, you know, very valuable lesson.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

HUANG: Well, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Yunte Huang is the author of the new book "Inseparable." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Madeleine Albright talks about her new book "Fascism: A Warning." She writes, quote, "some may view this book and its title as alarmist - good. We should be awake to the assault on democratic values that has gathered strength in many countries abroad and that is dividing America at home," unquote. Albright served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. She was the first woman to hold that position. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our program was directed today by Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

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