Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture by Cynthia Wu (review)
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Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture. By Cynthia Wu. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 204. $84.50 cloth; $28.95 paper; $28.95 e-book)

Cynthia Wu’s book reaches well beyond the historical figures of Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous nineteenth-century conjoined twins, and provides the reader with an in-depth study of not only the social context in which they lived but also the lasting effect their joined image had on the American imagination. The book is a thorough investigation of connections, both in relation to the twins themselves and of the metaphorical connections within families, nations, and social groups that the twins come to represent. At various times throughout history, Chang and Eng have become symbols for cohesion and compromise in spite of difference. Wu also approaches the content of the book through an interdisciplinary lens, conjoining the disciplines of disability studies, Asian American studies, social science, literary criticism, and ethnography, supporting her original work with research done by top scholars in these fields. The result is a fascinating view of Chang and Eng presented from many angles.

After an introduction that explains the widespread appeal of Chang and Eng and the interdisciplinary, methodological approach of cultural studies Wu uses to place the twins within an historical context and to explore their later cultural signification, Part I: Locating Material Traces in the Archives contains three chapters primarily focused on the nineteenth century. Chapters one and two give the known historical background of Chang and Eng, explain the racial attitudes and perceptions of disability in the nineteenth century, and discuss the commodification of “extraordinary” bodies for the purposes of entertainment and financial gain. The second chapter also follows Chang and Eng as they transition from sideshow performers to land and slaveholding farmers and family men in North [End Page 276] Carolina. Also in chapter two, the role of physicians in Chang and Eng’s lives illustrates the shift in position of physicians from serving merely as authenticators of extraordinary bodies as part of the sideshow spectacle to professionals concerned with the causes of physical difference. Chapter three goes much deeper into the medical world of the nineteenth century and includes a discussion of the Chang and Eng artifacts in Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, including a postmortem plaster body cast and Chang and Eng’s connected liver floating in a jar. For those readers who are solely interested in Chang and Eng, chapter three may be too far-ranging a look at the medical practices of the nineteenth century, but for those with an interest in the power and attitudes of nineteenth-century physicians regarding bodies, extraordinary and not, the chapter provides a wealth of fascinating context. At the end of this scientifically oriented chapter, Wu includes a twist with a discussion of the fine-art photographs done by Rosamond Purcell and William Wegman of the twins’ body cast. The inclusion and analysis of these photographs underscores a connection between science and art.

The visual art discussed at the end of Part I transitions well into Part II: Reading Literature and Visual Cultures. Chapters four and five take up an in-depth analysis of literary and visual works stretching from the nineteenth century into the present, including the cartoons of Thomas Nast and the literary works of Mark Twain, Monica Sone, Maxine Hong Kingston, Hualing Nieh, Philip Gotanda, and others. Wu deftly singles out the multitude of meanings that arise from the inclusion of Chang and Eng in these disparate works. The metaphorical uses of Chang and Eng appear to be endless, and by including a variety of texts, cartoons, and visual works, Wu gives the reader a sense of how deeply these nineteenth-century Thai twins have penetrated American culture. Part II also includes a chapter on films after the 1970s that have used twins, sometimes conjoined and sometimes not. Though the film analyses are enlightening, the sudden shift from a focus on twins to how twins in the selected films normalize the sexual relationships of white women leads the reader somewhat astray from the scope of the book. [End Page 277...


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