My culminating thesis project for my undergraduate degree was a chapbook of poetry on Chang and Eng Bunker, “The Original Siamese Twins.” My research for the project came primarily as a 60 foot role of microfilm borrowed through inter-library loan from The University of North Carolina. After writing 36 poems about the Bunkers, and my family, I made an edition of 35 hand bound chapbooks and an open digital edition. Below is the introduction to the chapbook. For a free digital copy please leave a comment requesting one.
In my senior year of high school I took a year-long course on infectious, human diseases: Ebola, influenza, leprosy, Chlamydia. I spent a long time studying photographs of magnified viruses, and harshly lit snapshots of rashes and lesions. Informed by what little science I could comprehend: death revealed a new face to me. It became something that I could acknowledge as thriving inside everything: a potential energy that all living things hold within themselves. Armed with this new outlook I tried to reexamine the deaths within my own history, specifically, the most personally mysterious: the passing of my pau-pau, my maternal grandmother, when I was seven-years-old.
Although I continue to carry many memories of my pau-pau with me, they mostly remain un-translated: my pau-pau and I navigated not only a distance of age during our short relationship, but we also communicated through a language barrier – from Taishanese to English. The memories that I associate with her death are intensely physical: touching the smooth inside of her upper arm during the summer before she was diagnosed with cancer, the peculiar smell of her hospice, the melting of my First Communion wafer on my tongue the month before she died. So many of these memories exist in a language-less plane, where it is hard for me to discern where my body begins and ends.
A deep rooted interest with bodies and cultural identity eventually lead me to the research that I pursued in college on spectacle ethnography. Spectacle ethnography which was most prominent in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds is a practice of putting people of color, or people with deformities on display for others’ entertainment, usually under the thin guise of scientific presentation. It was through this research that I first ‘met’ Chang and Eng Bunker, who were famous throughout the world for being the original “Siamese Twins.”
On May 11, 1811 Chang and Eng were born on a houseboat in the Kingdom of Siam, now Thailand. Their father was a Chinese fisherman whose name has been lost, and their mother, named Nok, was half-Chi- nese and half-Thai. Nok protected her sons from the wishes of the King of Siam, who had ordered the brothers to be killed, believing that their birth signaled the end of the world. Chang and Eng for the most part grew up like normal boys, playing and swimming, training their pet duck together and caring for their younger siblings. Sadly an outbreak of cholera when they were just adolescents changed their lives forever by claiming the lives of their father and their younger siblings. With their family’s main provider dead, the brothers became successful preserved duck egg mer- chants and business men at a young age. Their lives changed again when they were summoned to the King’s palace as teens, where they made such a favorable impression on the King that they became Siam’s first ambassadors to China.
In 1829 Chang and Eng were to travel again, this time to the United States with Captain Coffin of Boston, under contract with both the Captain and a merchant named Robert Hunter. Although the brothers often talked about returning to their homeland, they never did. Instead they were put on display for three years under the management of Captain Coffin and his wife. Eventually the brothers freed themselves from this harsh contract and set out displaying themselves throughout the United States and Europe under their own management. In 1839, the brothers settled in Wilkesboro County, North Carolina where they became successful tobacco farmers and outstanding members of their community. The brothers fell in love, courted and eventu- ally married two sisters (not twins) named Adeline and Sarah Yates. Between the two marriages, 21 children were born. Eventually the two growing fami- lies separated. The brothers split their time by spending three nights intervals in each of their houses: this was an agreement that they kept until death.
Chang and Eng’s lives are complicated narratives of perceived and created identity. The brothers were prolific slave owners; each of them sent one of their sons to fight in the Civil War. Chang and Eng lived in a United States where Chinese were not a common part of the human landscape, particularly in the North East and South, and so they created their own space for themselves and their mixed-heritage families: fashioning themselves as Southern gentlemen, who read poetry and were connoisseurs of fine French silks. Chang and Eng worked hard to educate all of their chil- dren, particularly their daughters, four of whom became school teachers.
One of the Bunker girls, Chang’s daughter Nannie grabbed my attention while doing research on her father. Nannie was the only Bunker child whose diary has survived. In the portions of her letters and her diary that I was able to read, she writes about her journey to Western Europe with her father, uncle and her dearest cousin Katherine (who was dying from tuberculosis at the time). In her writing Nannie describes the people who she meets abroad, memories of her childhood in North Carolina, and a particularly stunning description of a dead work horse that she encountered during her time in Edinburg.
The following manuscript weaves together numerous narratives that I have used to explore my own identity, and the duality that I feel is paired with my mixed-heritage identity. Locations in the poems to follow vary from my gong-gong’s (my maternal grandfather) house in Queens, to Europe and China. Voices portrayed include Chang Bunker, his children Christopher Wren and Nannie and my own. Death, inheritance, and the dual nature of personal identity and twinship haunt and connect these various narrative threads together.