Siamese Twins have been an American symbol, speaker says

By Tom Joyce

August 5, 2013

Everyone knows Eng and Chang Bunker came from what is now Thailand, worked in the circus and settled in Surry County — but what about serving as a symbol for political propaganda?

That was the revelation Friday afternoon from Cynthia Wu, a college professor from New York who gave a presentation on her new book, “Chang and Eng Reconnected — The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture.”

Wu’s book focused on various ways in which authors, artists, newspaper columnists and others in the U.S. have viewed the pair “as some sort of symbol for being American,” she told an audience of about 40 people at the Andy Griffith Museum Theatre. Based on a show of hands at its start, the gathering included about a dozen Eng and Chang descendants.

Wu said symbols linked to the Siamese Twins have involved the basic idea of what it means to live in the U.S. as well as specific examples exploiting the fact that they were conjoined to influence public opinion.

In a sense, they represent the dual conflict associated with living in America, said Wu, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New York at Buffalo who specializes in Asian-American and comparative ethnic subjects.

“You are told you need to be independent, but also that you need to be part of a community,” explained Wu, who has researched Eng and Chang Bunker for 13 years. “As Americans, we place a very high premium on individuality — but no one is a true individual.”

The twins’ existence also mirrored the turmoil of a country made up of many diverse cultures.

“They were two people, but they shared one body — they lived in constant tension,” the visiting author said.

“It seems to be one of those things that Americans struggle with all the time.”

Cartoon Uses

Aside from the abstract nature of how two people being joined together parallels the nation as a whole, the twins have been the subject of literature designed to make certain political points, said Wu.

While presenting slides during her talk, Wu referred to one example involving Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist during the 1800s.

One anti-union cartoon Nast created is titled “The American Twins — United we stand, divided we fall,” which attempts to show the relationship Nast believed labor should have with capital, or management. It depicts those two forces joined together at the chest with the label “the real union” on their common membrane.

Wu said this cartoon encouraged workers to join with employers rather than fight them, but this proved to be problematic at a time when there was no 40-hour work week and little other protections for employees.

It was natural to include the Siamese Twins in such artwork, because they were the most widely traveled entertainers of their day who were seen by more people than any other celebrity, Wu said.

The New York professor also highlighted a pre-World War II illustration of how Eng and Chang Bunker were used to propagandize the need for the U.S. to enter that conflict via an “America first” theme.

Drawn by Dr. Seuss and bearing the title “the lads with the Siamese beard,” it shows an American connected to a German via their facial hair, with the latter figure displaying a swastika on his chest. This artwork implied that the U.S. not going to war on the side of the Allies was akin to supporting Hitler’s Nazi regime.

“Unsettling” Condition

Wu further discussed how society often has mixed feelings about the presence of Siamese twins in general.

In the animal kingdom, particularly among reptiles, two bodies linked together are a natural occurrence that doesn’t seem to pose a problem. “Conjoinment among reptiles and turtles is actually quite common,” she added.

However, it is a different situation with humans. “This image of conjoined twins is so unsettling for us,” Wu said.

She cited the often-vigorous efforts to separate such twins by surgical means, which Wu believes generally reflect hospitals’ desire for prestige in performing such an unusual operation.

After Wu spoke, Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council — which sponsored her visit — praised the work of the author in offering another facet of the Original Siamese Twins’ story.

“We always welcome new approaches in studying our ancestors,” said Jones, a great-great-granddaughter of Eng Bunker.

Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or tjoyce@civitasmedia.com.