November 24, 2007

Old News: The original Siamese twins

I think everyone knows (or at least figured) that the expression Siamese twins comes from a pair of actual conjoined twins from Siam. There are quite a few books written about them (in English and Thai, among other languages, no doubt). From the same issue as my previous post from the Bangkok Recorder comes another interesting piece of news from America.
First published November 3, 1865:
อนึ่งมีข่าวมาใหม่ว่า, คนสองคนที่เปนฝาแฝดที่เกิดในเมืองสยามนี้, ที่ไปอยู่เมืองอเมริกานั้น. แต่ก่อนเขาก็ได้ทรัพย์สมบัติมาก, เพราะเที่ยวสำแดงตัวให้คนทั้งปวงเหน, เขาก็ได้เมียทั้งสองคนเกิดลูกทั้งสองฝ่าย. ลงไปอยู่เมืองอเมริกาฝ่ายใต้, ทำบ้านทำสวนสบายอยู่. แต่เมื่อเกิดศึกสงครามนั้น, ทรัพย์สมบัติเขาก็หายไปหมด. เขาหมายใจว่าจะเที่ยวไปสำแดงตัวเหมือนอย่างก่อน, แต่จะเอาลูกเมียไปด้วยเพื่อจะหาทรัพย์อีก.
Which translates to:
Furthermore, news has arrived on the two people who are twins born in Siam, who went to live in America. Before, they got very wealthy, because they toured around showing themselves for everyone to see. They both got married, and they both had children. They went to live in the south of America, built comfortable homes and gardens. But when the war broke out, their wealth all disappeared. They intend to tour around showing themselves as before, but they will take their wives and children with them, in order to earn more money.
Their names were Chang and Eng Bunker, and they were discovered in Siam by British businessman Robert Hunter in 1829. At the time of this article, they would have been 54 years old, and living as naturalized citizens in Wilkesboro, North Carolina for more than two decades already. The war mentioned is, of course, the American Civil War. General Lee surrendered in April of that year, and interestingly, the last of the Confederate forces to surrender finally did so on November 4, just one day after this issue of the Bangkok Recorder went to press.

For those who haven't read about the life stories of Chang and Eng, Wikipedia is a serviceable introduction. The twins had 22 children between them (with separate wives--sisters Adelaide and Sarah Anne Yates), they owned a plantation complete with slaves, their sons fought for the Confederacy, and they eventually expired a few hours apart on January 17, 1874, four months short of their 63rd birthday. And despite being rather curious celebrities, and spawning an idiom which has been translated back into Thai (แฝดสยาม) and is still used both in their homeland and adopted land, they wanted to have a normal life. This is why they settled down, and why they chose the last name Bunker, and from this piece in the Bangkok Recorder we learn just how normal a life they achieved, complete with financial pitfalls. And somehow I find this surprising mundaneness to their life just as fascinating as their "Siamese twin-ness". It makes me glad that even a presumably austere Christian missionary like Dan Beach Bradley wasn't above a little celebrity gossip in his newspaper.

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