Even after a century, ears perk up at the mention of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins joined at the chest by a salami-sized strip of flesh.
Curiosity runs especially high across North Carolina, the twins' adopted home state, where they retired rich from the traveling freak show circuit, married a pair of sisters and — to the world's unending fascination — fathered at least 21 children.
In their day, crowds paid 25 cents apiece to watch them perform acrobatic tricks on stage, swat a badminton birdie back and forth and answer questions about their anatomy.
But in Yunte Huang's new biography, "Inseparable," the author shows that Chang and Eng's story deserves scrutiny beyond lurid fascination with their biology. They lived lives of contradiction: two people who shared one body; victims of racism who also owned slaves; Asian immigrants who backed the Confederate South.
And, Huang said an interview, Chang and Eng's story fits neatly into discussions of race, immigration and what it means to be American — topics as turbulent now as they were in the twins' 1820s.
The world gawked at them, not only for being conjoined twins, but also because they were the country's first famous Asians — a curiosity in several senses. They got paraded across hundreds of stages and collected people's pocket change, but in the end, they profited from their exploitation and carved out their own American lives.
"Their's is a fascinating American story that needs to be told," said Huang, an English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It relates to our age right now, and that gave me a sense of urgency. We look at them. On the one hand they're just like us, and on the other, they're absolutely different and freakish."
"Inseparable" follows Chang and Eng from their 1811 birth in what is now Thailand, where they lived aboard a house boat and sold duck eggs to help feed their family. A Scottish merchant spotted them while swimming and whisked them off to America as a "most precious curio," having first paid their mother the equivalent of $500 and getting a blessing from the king of Siam, who sat upon a 10-foot golden throne.
As performers, they were forced to travel in steerage while their handlers rode in luxury — an injustice that irritated the twins as they watched their benefactors grow richer. Though billed as a biological oddity, Chang and Eng became just as celebrated for their wit. Once, when a one-eyed patron attended the show, they offered to refund half his ticket price because "he couldn't see as much."
In 1832, after a few years on the road, they grew savvy enough to break off on their own, buying themselves 500 cigars to celebrate their success. Later, known worldwide, they settled in Traphill, N.C., not far from Wilkesboro, for reasons that remain unclear.
But there, the twins reinvented themselves as members of the Southern gentry, buying a farm, several dozen slaves and marrying a pair of sisters. When the Civil War broke out, Chang and Eng fervently backed the Confederacy, sending their sons to fight. In an irony lost on nobody, the war lost Chang and Eng much of their fortune. As exploiters, formerly exploited themselves, they attempted a return to their freak show roots.
The twins did everything, obviously, together. They spent each day with an arm around the other's shoulder. They ate, dressed, bathed and — in a fashion that gets an entire chapter of speculation — made love as a pair.
Chang and Eng even died only a few hours apart in 1874 at the age of 62.
"The biggest thing I take away from their story," Huang said, "is the sense of what does it mean to be a human being. For them, they have no choice. So-called individualism will not work for them. They have to do everything together. ... Being human for them means literally being more than one all the time. This kind of rugged individualism, which is so cherished in American culture, may require another look in light of their story."
But "Inseparable" addresses the even greater complexity of their lives: that an immigrant pair could prosper by a racist system. As Chinese-Americans in an age that predated much Chinese immigration, they were treated as "honorary whites," granted citizenship rights. Further, they were able to marry white sisters in an era that forbade interracial weddings. This was no doubt aided by Chang and Eng's status as some of the richest men in Wilkes County, their "uncommonly elegant" house equipped with brass candlesticks and ivory-handled knives.
Huang's book makes the case that Chang and Eng took a page from P.T. Barnum, the great showman of their age. Their great performance may have been their mastery of the system that manipulated them, a trick they put on together.