The Lives of Chang & Eng: Siam’s Twins in Nineteenth Century America by Joseph Andrew Orser (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by

Conjoined twins, Siamese twins, Chang & Eng, Race, Disability

The Lives of Chang & Eng: Siam’s Twins in Nineteenth Century America. By Joseph Andrew Orser. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Pp. 272. Cloth, $28.00.)

Although Chang and Eng have been the object of enduring fascination and the subject of numerous studies, Joseph Andrew Orser’s book offers a fresh and compelling look at the twins’ history and the changing social and cultural worlds they inhabited. Orser explores how the brothers struggled to construct “normal” lives vis-à-vis a society that positioned them as a “monstrosity” (13). His sensitive biography of the brothers is supplemented with a strong analysis of the ways that their lives intersected with evolving discourses of race, disability, and respectability in the nineteenth-century United States. The result is a work that deftly manages to shed new light on the lives of Chang and Eng, and to illuminate the shifting social and cultural contexts that they both shaped and were shaped by. [End Page 414]

Much was written about Chang and Eng in their lifetimes, but there are only a few sources that can properly be described as being in the twins’ own voices, and Orser is concomitantly judicious in his research and conclusions. In brief, their story begins in Siam, where the boys were born around 1811 to a family of mixed Chinese and Siamese descent. They were connected to each other at the sternum by a small ligature, and eventually came to the attention of Western traders in the region. The American sea captain Abel Coffin brought the twins to the United States in 1829, where they were introduced to the public as Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins. Throughout the subsequent decade, the brothers toured incessantly and amassed a small fortune. They acclimated to American life, by, among other things, adopting the surname Bunker, and eventually settled down in North Carolina. They married a pair of sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Ann Yates, and started families, eventually fathering at least twenty-one children between them. Chang and Eng became prosperous slaveholding farmers, but also returned to show business in the 1850s to supplement their income, and they toured intermittently until their deaths in 1874.

Carefully chronicling their full history gives Orser the opportunity to correct misconceptions and examine suppositions about their lives. A typically strong passage investigates Chang and Eng’s 1843 marriages, which putatively provoked a violent reaction from locals. Orser finds no evidence of violence, and shows that the most vitriolic responses actually came from abolitionist papers in the North, who regarded the marriage as demonstration of how badly slavery had perverted the South. The acceptance that Chang and Eng found in Wilkes County as they became naturalized citizens, which was ostensibly limited to free white persons, and then married white women in a place where miscegenation was outlawed, owed itself to two interrelated factors. The first was that the twins managed to ingratiate themselves with the local elite. The second rested on the fact that Chinese and other “Asiatics” were not yet fixed in an American racial imaginary fixated on a binary between black and white. Indeed, Orser notes that it was not until an 1860 tour of California that the twins were described as “yellow,” though it would not be the last time (165). Orser’s account of the twins’ early years in North Carolina at once corrects some seemingly sloppy scholarship and provides an insightful look at the social and racial dynamics that surrounded Chang and Eng as they made comfortable lives for themselves.

None of this should suggest that Chang and Eng’s success came easy. [End Page 415] The twins were frequently ridiculed and attacked in the press on a variety of fronts, and endured endless prodding and speculation about their condition from the medical profession. Exploitative managers, unruly audiences, and unseemly commentary on their personal affairs were frequent sources of consternation. Chang and Eng responded to these challenges with a combination of assertiveness and wit that demonstrated their independence, intelligence, and essential respectability. And while the twins clearly garnered a degree of acceptance and respect in their...