BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Cultural scholar Cynthia Wu has spent years
studying Chang and Eng Bunker, a pair of Asian-born, co-joined,
entrepreneurial, self-promoting "human marvels."
"The Bunker twins," she says, "have served for more than 100
years as metaphors for the paradox that while 'individualism' is
what makes Americans stand apart from Europeans, unity is equally
Wu, PhD, assistant professor of American Studies at the
University at Buffalo, says much has been written about the twins'
unusual talents, intelligence, fame, far-flung travels and
precocity. But her interest lies in the fact that in literature,
cultural studies and art the twins have been used to represent the
quintessential American struggle between otherness and sameness,
unity and diversity, exoticism and normalcy -- concepts that
historically play out in the very bodies of major popular culture
icons. Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga are just two contemporary
A specialist in disability studies and comparative ethnic
studies, Wu focuses on this embodiment in her upcoming book
"National Conjoinments: The Siamese Twins in American Literature
and Culture," due out in 2012 from Temple University Press.
"The Bunkers represented more than who and what they were as
actual people," she says, "They were 'symbols' for many like Mark
Twain and 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast, who used them to
work out the tricky difference between difference and unity in
"The twins came to represent unity from difference for many
reasons," she says, "one of which is that even though they shared a
body, they were far from identical individuals.
"Each of them possessed many discrete traits that opposed those
in the other in important ways," she says.
"Chang Bunker was friendly, outgoing, alcoholic, shorter in
stature and had a temper; for instance, while Eng was a quiet,
withdrawn teetotaler with wider intellectual interests. One body,
two individuals," Wu says, adding that their differences extended
to different physical peculiarities and reactions to physical
stimuli, a fact that fascinated physicians.
"Even in terms of their shared traits and identity," says Wu,
"they repeatedly confounded public assumptions about their origins,
physical abilities and social selves." The public contradictions
and convolutions so like those of the American body politic, begin
with their moniker.
"The Bunkers (like many American immigrants, they adopted a new
name) were popularly known as 'Siamese twins,'" says Wu, "in part
because to Westerners, Siam represented a mystical place as
isolated and impenetrable as they took these brothers to be.
Although they were actually Malaysian and Chinese, the Bunkers
willingly employed the term 'Siamese' to promote the very mystery
they were selling.
"Another paradox," says Wu, "is that as migrants from Asia,
Chang and Eng inhabited a subjugated position in the racially
stratified United States. Many Asian immigrants were financially
exploited by corporate and individual interests in the early 19th
century and, when they arrived here, the Bunkers were no
"But they took hold of their own lives," she says, "and
ultimately assumed considerable class privilege in the antebellum
South, where they married white sisters, had 21 children between
them (all double cousins), operated a family plantation and owned
"Another incongruity," says Wu, "is that, in that era,
anatomically anomalous subjects were considered weird, even
frightening and were often hidden away. Not the Bunkers. They used
their 'mysterious origins' and physical anomaly for profit,
creating considerable wealth from the deliberate and
self-orchestrated display of their bodies before audiences around
Contemporaneous entertainers who made their living as "freaks,"
were usually indentured to employers or agents who exploited them
for their own financial gain, she says. The Bunkers upended that
practice as well, hiring their own managers, running their own
entertainment enterprise and benefitting financially from their
Wu says, "We have a lot of evidence of how they were perceived,
how they behaved; how they were discussed, because even in their
lifetimes, they were enormously well known. There are a vast number
of newspaper accounts, advertising posters, souvenir booklets,
trading cards and portrayals of the twins in song, drama and
fictional prose and, of course, family stories, documents and
letters to inform our understanding.
"Possessed of some qualities that could have left them
economically marginalized and socially dispossessed, these exotic,
'disabled' oddities used other qualities to become agents of their
own success," says Wu "and because of that, artists and writers in
their own day and afterwards have used the Bunker twins to 'think
through' the paradox of 'otherness and 'difference' that operated
and continue to operate within a society that celebrates
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