'Siamese Twins' Still Fascinate, Two Centuries Later Born to Chinese parents, conjoined twins Eng and Chang Bunker became famous throughout the world as "Siamese twins." After years of being displayed at exhibitions, they settled in the mountains of North Carolina in the 1830s. NPR's Michel Martin learns more about their remarkable story from descendant Alex Sink.
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'Siamese Twins' Still Fascinate, Two Centuries Later

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'Siamese Twins' Still Fascinate, Two Centuries Later

'Siamese Twins' Still Fascinate, Two Centuries Later

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Now I want to turn to a story that has Hollywood written all over it. You might have heard the term Siamese twins, that's what conjoined twins used to be called. That term seems to originate with the famous Bunker brothers, Eng and Chang Bunker. They were born to ethnic Chinese parents in 1811, in what was then the kingdom of Siam. They were attached at the base of their chest, a condition that made them an attraction at traveling exhibitions and made them internationally famous. Eventually, they made enough money to buy land in North Carolina, where they married two local sisters and raised 21 children between them. We wanted to learn more about this remarkable family history, so we've called Alex Sink. She is the great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker. You might recognize her name from politics. She's the former CFO of Florida, and she ran for governor there in 2010. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

ALEX SINK: Hi Michel, it's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Now, you grew up in the house that Chang built in Mount Airy, right?

SINK: That's right.

MARTIN: Did you know much about them growing up?

SINK: I knew a lot about them growing up because living in the house, of course, we were living in a history museum, basically. And the family, as you mentioned, 21 children between them, so many relatives around in the area, and as I was growing up, there were always stories to be told about the way they lived their life, and we had pieces of furniture that my grandfather had brought back from their tours in Europe. And it was fascinating to learn a lot about my ancestors, obviously.

MARTIN: How was the source of their fame discussed? I mean, how did people feel about the fact that that's essentially how they'd earned their living? They'd earned enough money to buy the land in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Was that..

SINK: Well...

MARTIN: ...how was that talked about?

SINK: Well, I have to add that there was - there were pros and cons, for example. In fact, I had an aunt who had moved away from Mount Airy and had children and as my cousins would come back and visit our grandmother, my mother would always say, now Alex and Dottie, remember, don't say a word to your cousins about the Siamese twins because Aunt Nancy doesn't want her children to know about them. And so there was a little bit of wanting to blend in, but for me, as a child growing up in Mount Airy, I couldn't go walk the streets of Main Street without somebody stopping, even me as a little child, saying, you must be one of those Bunker clan children, I can tell from your eyes. Because even I had Asian-featured eyes.

And so back to your question about, you know, what we thought about them. We knew that they had been in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and - but it was a source of pride that they recognized they were the original entrepreneurs. They realized that they could leave Barnum & Bailey and go touring on their own, which they did for several years as they accumulated enough money to be able to go. And they wanted just to have - settle down and have a somewhat normal life. And they chose to live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. And Michel, how in the world they were ever accepted into these communities in the backwoods of North Carolina is still absolutely amazing to me.

MARTIN: I understand that they were kind of so thoroughly integrated into the life of the community there that they owned slaves and that they sent two of their sons to fight for the South during the Civil War. Do you know that to be true?

SINK: Well, yes. Yes, they did send some of their sons to fight in the Civil War. My particular grandfather - Chang and Adelaide had three sons and my grandfather was too young to go and fight in the war. But that's what was expected of the children of the South was, if they were of a certain age, to go and fight in the Civil War. And they were very integral parts of the community. Adelaide actually started a school so that her children could be educated. They were very strong members of the White Plains Baptist Church and their children were raised as Christians, although from my own reading, Eng and Chang were practicing Buddhists.

MARTIN: I understand that you have a very large family, as you might imagine, where there were 21 children born to these brothers and that - do you still have family reunions? Do you all still get together?

SINK: Yeah, well, the Bunker family sponsors a reunion, I believe, it's the last Saturday of July every year. And this has been going on for decades and people come back and share pictures and share stories. And in fact, one of the grandchildren or great-grandchildren actually put together an enormous genealogy book with pictures and the lineage of every one of the children and their children's children. And it always - it mentions even my children in this book. It's quite fascinating to see that even some of the children of the twins, my granddaddy Albert's sister, ended up settling in Alaska back in the late 1800s. And we have pictures of trips that my grandfather Albert took to Alaska by way of train and dogsled and however else he got there. It was quite fascinating.

MARTIN: Do you think that this sense of shame or unease that some members of the family had about their circumstances - so first of all, I'm curious why you think they were, people who didn't want to mention it, why didn't they want to mention it? But do you think that that's largely gone away now?

SINK: (Laughing) Oh, Michel, I think it has everything to do with sex.

The idea that these two conjoined brothers were married to sisters and trying to conjure up images of how they were able to procreate and eventually raise, have these children between them and raise them very successfully. And you might have picked up on the story that eventually the sisters weren't getting along, so they built two separate houses, one for each family. And the twins then had a pact and for decades, every three days they would move to the other house. And that actually precipitated their eventual death, when my great-grandfather, Chang, was quite ill and it came time to move to the other house in the middle of the winter and he insisted that they go ahead and go. And he got very, very ill in the middle of the night and expired.

MARTIN: Oh, wow, that's a remarkable story. What are you telling your kids about this? I understand that they're grown now. But what are you telling them about it?

SINK: Well, they know about it because we're fortunate enough, of course, to go back and visit their grandfather. My mother, who was the inheritor of the home place, passed away a number of years ago, but they were right there on that farm, seeing and thinking about the life of the Siamese twins. And there's now a museum in town. My cousin, Tanya Jones, runs the Surry Arts Council and put together some nice exhibits in the town of Mount Airy about the life of the twins. And it's something we're proud about, that they can be so different and we can be different.

MARTIN: Well, if you ever decide to run for office again, we know you have a big posse behind you.


MARTIN: Alex Sink is the great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker, one of a pair, a famous pair, of conjoined twins. She was kind enough to join us from WLRN in Miami. Alex, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SINK: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: Coming up, we've talked about how Chinese influence is affecting the business and culture in America. Now we hear from Bruce Pickering of the Asia Society. He offers his perspective about what this all means for America's future. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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