Twins Eng and Chang Bunker were joined at the hip — literally.
Born in 1811, the conjoined twins were connected by a 5-inch-long band of cartilage above their waist. They spent the early years of their life in the Kingdom of Siam — modern day Thailand — coining the phrase “Siamese Twins.”
Their parents, Nok and Ti Eye, named the twins “Eng” and “Chang” meaning “right” and “left” in Chinese. Despite adversity, the two managed to live a relatively normal life; swimming, running and performing backflips for crowds around the world.
They eventually settled down in Wilkesboro, where they were married in 1843 to a pair of sisters: Adelaide and Sally Yates. Eng and Chang are the only conjoined twins to have ever fathered children, said Zack Blackmon Jr., great-great-grandson of Eng. They had 21 kids between the two of them,
Eng and Chang’s descendants now total more than 1,500, and about 200 were in attendance Saturday at the 25th annual reunion at First Baptist Church in Mount Airy.
“Most people don’t know much about the Siamese twins, except that they were hooked together for 63 years, but to us they’re so much more important than that,” Blackmon said.
Blackmon has twin daughters and there have been several sets of twins in the family since Chang and Eng, he said, though none were conjoined.
Eng Bunker II and his twin brother, Chang Bunker II, were one of a few sets of twins present at the reunion. The 73-year-olds were the first set of twins to be born since the Siamese twins for whom they were named.
“They had a hard time growing up, but made the best of it and started a family, which is what we’re celebrating today,” said Eng Bunker II, the great-grandson of Eng. “Being conjoined in this day and age wouldn’t be so bad, but back in 1811, they didn’t have the technology they do now.”
The original Siamese twins passed away 140 years ago at the age of 63. Chang died first of a blood clot, and Eng passed away a few hours later, though his cause of death remains unknown even today.
Much of the twins’ fame comes from their time spent as performers for P.T. Barnum’s circus when they were teens, a career that took them from their home in Siam to all over the world.
In their late 50s, the Siamese Twins traveled to Russia to perform once again for a brief stint before returning to their home in North Carolina, where they passed away in 1874, Alex Sink McBride said.
“It was said that Eng and Chang didn’t always get along in later years, so there’s this lore that one of them got mad and said ‘I’m going to knock you off this carriage,’” she said. “But despite minor differences, the twins were the same in that they were big family men and loved their children very much.”
McBride, the 2010 Democratic candidate for Florida governor, goes by Alex but she was named after her great-grandmother, Adelaide.
The Siamese twins used to divide their time between two houses: one where Chang’s wife, Adelaide, lived and one where Eng’s wife, Sally, lived.
McBride, great-granddaughter of Chang, grew up in the original home of Adelaide and Chang near Wilkesboro.
“We’re very proud of our heritage and everything the twins accomplished despite the adversity they had to face,” said McBride, who lives in Tampa, Fla.
Family members came from all over the country., including Florida, Ohio and Indiana to attend the reunion. Thailand’s ambassador to the United States of America, Vijavat Isarabhakdi, was also in attendance, as was the great-granddaughter of Aunt Grace, the slave who served as a wet nurse and caretaker for the 21 Bunker children.
Aunt Grace also cared for the Yates sisters when they were young, her great-great-granddaughter, Brenda Ethridge, said.
“She was an amazing person who took care of all the kids and somehow endured the slavery era,” Ethridge said. “Some people even say we’re blood-related (to the Bunkers), but I don’t know.”
Ethridge, who lives in Maryland, has attended the annual family reunion six times, and likes to talk to the other descendants so she can piece together more of Aunt Grace’s life and her own family history.
“That’s what this whole reunion is about; forging connections with family members and keeping the Twins’ history and memories alive,” said Blackmon, who has attended all 25 reunions. “We’re here celebrating today because of them and, of course, we’re extremely proud of our heritage.”