In Inseparable, Yunte Huang explores the lives of Chang and Eng Bunker, conjoined twins who left their home in Siam as teenagers and traveled the world as “curious freaks.” They eventually settled in North Carolina, where they married a pair of sisters and fathered 21 children. We asked Huang to tell us more about the twins’ fascinating lives and what their experience says about America in the 19th century, as well as America today.
In your previous book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, you also wrote about the intersection of Asian and American culture. Did you find any similar threads when researching and writing Inseparable? Did your own background as a Chinese American come into play?
My own experience as a Chinese American certainly comes into play, not in any egocentric sense, but in the way that my understanding of American culture and history is filtered through the personal experience of someone who grew up in China and came to America after college—i.e. at an age of having formed a basic worldview and having reached a degree of intellectual and emotional maturity—and then, as a new immigrant, a FOB (fresh off the boat), if you will, I had to begin again, trying to find my way in the labyrinthine matrix of a new, at times hostile, social milieu. For me, Charlie Chan opened a window to American culture, helping me understand both the racist legacy and creative genius of this country. Inseparable continues and expands my interest in the Asian story in American history, in how ethnic minorities, against impossible odds, turn cultural margins into cutting edges.
What prompted you to write about this topic?
I don’t mean to trivialize motives for writing this or any book, but sometimes life turns on the slightest suggestion. Before deciding to work on this topic, I had been fully aware of the import and intrigue of Chang and Eng’s story, and that was why I had written a snippet about the twins in my Charlie Chan book, as an example of the American biases against Asians. In the editing process of that book, when I saw the marginal comments on the manuscript made by my editor, Bob Weil, I detected a keen interest in the Siamese Twins material. As a scholar, I’m always fascinated by marginalia and have, in fact, researched and written about the marginalia of Herman Melville, Ezra Pound and so on, because I believe those ephemeral words jotted down on the spur of the moment are the most revelatory. Therefore, Bob’s marginalia on my Charlie Chan manuscript, wittingly or unwittingly, encouraged me to pursue the topic further.
There have been several books written about these famous Siamese Twins. How did you go about setting your book apart from the others?
Those books can be roughly divided into three categories: novels that fictionalize the story; biographies whose perspectives need an update in relation to changing cultural sentiments and opinions; and academic monographs not intended for general readers. My intention is to write a highly readable biography based on rigorous research that leaves no stone unturned, to produce something akin to what Truman Capote would call “the nonfiction novel,” a work that has “the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose and the precision of poetry.” That’s the high bar I set for my writing, whether or not I can get there.
Your research is extremely thorough, with references to letters, business ledgers, newspaper articles and journals. What was the most important research element in writing this book? Were you able to unearth any new findings?
My task in writing this book was to tell the twins’ story against the large historical backdrop, detailing “their rendezvous with American history,” as the title suggests. To do that, I not only needed to research deep into the twins’ conjoined life itself, but also reveal their real connections with history, whether it is a cataclysmic event like the Civil War or a quotidian occurrence like an ocean voyage. For instance, I had learned from various sources that Chang and Eng played a chess game with a fellow passenger on their last trans-Atlantic journey in July 1870, but there was no consensus among my sources as to who their game opponent was. Some claimed it was President Joseph Roberts of Liberia, and others said it was Frederick Douglass. But I eventually found the answer among the records of the National Archives. Imagine the thrill that went down my spine when the names popped up on the ship manifest. Next to “Chang and Eng Bunker,” I saw the name “Edward Roye,” the son of a fugitive slave from Kentucky, a Midwestern small-town black barber turned president of Liberia. Finding that clue, I was later able to dig and expand Roye’s story in the prologue, which also contains a vignette on another ship passenger, Rosa Prang, wife of Louis Prang, known in history as the “Father of the American Christmas Card.”
But I count another discovery as the most satisfying and rewarding: a handwritten contract signed by the twins on the day of their departure from Siam on April 1, 1829. On that contract, we see for the first and only time their names scrawled in Chinese—they were in fact Chinese twins, the Siamese moniker notwithstanding. These clues, tiny or big, in English or Chinese, are what Ezra Pound would call “luminous details,” which can shed light on the ever-elusive real we all pursue.
If you could have met Chang and Eng, what one thing would you have asked them?
Given the curious nature of us as sentient beings, I know most people would have asked them, referring to the conjugal matter, “How did you do it with the two sisters?” I have tried to take care of that inquiry in my book. My own question for them would be, “Why did you never go back to Siam?” As an immigrant, I can feel in my bones the pang of nostalgia, memories of my old country running as deep as genetic coding. After leaving their family in Siam at the young age of 17, the twins never went back. I’m curious to know why.
What was the most surprising thing you learned when researching and writing this book?
That the twins’ adopted hometown, Mount Airy, North Carolina, where they lived and died, is also the birthplace of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry, the fictional setting for the most popular 1960s American sitcom. As I describe it in the epilogue, it is fair to say that “The Andy Griffith Show” is supposedly about the “American normal,” Mayberry being a sleepy hamlet, an Arcadia where no trouble is too big for the amiable sheriff and his bungling deputy. In contrast, the Siamese Twins story is supposedly about the abnormal, or even freakish. The fortuitous coexistence of Andy Griffith and the Siamese Twins is a striking case of cultural symbiosis in America.
The fact that Chang and Eng were slave owners is controversial. Was it difficult to remain unbiased when writing this part of their story?
I did not try to remain unbiased on the issue of slavery—how can anyone? The fact that they became slaveholders after they had previously been sold and exploited virtually as slaves themselves is a powerful and sobering testament to what Primo Levi called the “gray zone” of humanity, a treacherously murky ground where the persecuted becomes the persecutor, the victim turns victimizer. To see them only as victims is to miss the larger theme of their extraordinary experience as a tragicomedy of errors, their human story.
Many of the book’s themes are in the news today, such as racial tensions and immigration. Did this have any impact when telling Chang and Eng’s story?
Absolutely. In addition to racial tensions and immigration, one very important issue is American democracy in the age of humbuggery. The fact that their remarkable story commenced in the age of Jacksonian democracy is not an insignificant aspect of my book. In tandem with the so-called rise of the common man during the Jacksonian Age, an era that many see as approximate to our own, there was also a boom of the freak show (or reality TV, if you will) and humbuggery. It was a time when everyone felt, rightly so, entitled to an opinion but could not, by virtue of ignorance or innocence, tell the difference between a gag and a gem, between what the showbiz calls “gaffed freaks” and “born freaks” (like the twins)—in other words, between the fake and the real. That gave con artists or carnival barkers like P.T. Barnum—whose spectacular career as the Prince of Humbugs is portrayed by Hugh Jackman in the recent blockbuster musical film—a golden opportunity to swoop in to make you feel better while they take your money or steal your soul or your vote. Being tricked by a con man, as Melville, a big fan of the Siamese Twins, reminded us long ago, is a price we pay or a risk we take in a confidence game called Democracy. Therefore, I felt an acute sense of urgency writing this book.
What is the one takeaway you hope to give readers of this book?
The Siamese Twins story reveals an America we know so well and yet hardly.
Did researching and writing this book spur additional book ideas? Are you working on another book project? If so, what is the topic?
Even though I have not settled on a specific topic, it will certainly be another Asian-American cultural icon, whose story I will, once again, try to reframe, elevate and humanize. Along with the Charlie Chan and the Siamese Twins books, my next book will complete a trilogy that may be entitled “A Rendezvous with American History.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Inseparable.