Samut Songkhram, Thailand
Leaving Sri Lanka, we head back to the Asian mainland, travelling more than fifteen hundred miles across the Bay of Bengal to Thailand.
Our destination is Samut Songkhram, a town some forty miles from Bangkok. There, on 11 May 1811, twin brothers Chang and Eng Bunker were born. Given that Thailand was still officially known as Siam at the time, and given that Chang and Eng were born conjoined, attached by a strip of cartilage at their chests, the pair were the original Siamese twins.
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But how did the brothers come to be known enough outside their native Thailand to inspire a term that has endured in the language for two centuries? Well, to say that the brothers lived an extraordinary life is something of an understatement.
According to legend, on their birth the king of Siam, Rama II, thought their appearance a bad omen and demanded they be killed; fortunately, the sentence was never carried out. Their father and five siblings all died in a cholera epidemic in 1819, after which they were raised single-handedly by their mother. At the age of fourteen, having now become national icons, they were sent by the king to Cochin-China on a diplomatic mission, accompanied by a hundred Siamese armed guards to protect them from the attention of ogling crowds en route. But, in 1824, that did not stop them from attracting the attention of a Scottish merchant working in Siam, named Robert Hunter.
Hunter saw potential in exhibiting Chang and Eng as a curiosity, and spent several years arranging a deal with the brothers, their mother and the Siamese authorities. Finally, when they were eighteen years old, the deal was finalised: the brothers were to be paid $10 per day (a salary eventually increased fivefold when they proved a success), while their mother was to be paid a one-off sum of $3,000 (of which, reportedly, she only ever received around $500). They departed Siam in April 1829, and arrived in Boston the following August, where they were exhibited to the paying public for the very first time. They proved an instant sensation.
Managed by Hunter’s business partner, Abel Coffin, the brothers were promoted as ‘The Siamese Double Boys’, and over the next decade were exhibited under that name to packed houses across America and Europe. The success of their tour doubtless helped to establish the term Siamese in the language as a synonym for ‘conjoined’: it had fallen into broader use in the language as early as the 1830s, and the brothers were soon established as a metaphor for anything or anyone inseparable from anything or anyone else:
People who have been inseparable and found all their happiness in each other for five years are in a sort of Siamese-twin condition, that other people are not likely to regard with tolerance or even with belief. —George Eliot, Letter to Charles Bray (1859)
As for the brothers themselves, in 1839 they settled in America and married two sisters, Adelaide and Sarah-Anne Yates, and fathered twenty-one children between them. Alas, financial problems compelled the brothers to return to show business after the Civil War, and in 1868 they accepted an invitation from showman P. T. Barnum to once more take their tour to Europe.
Tragically, just two years later, Chang suffered a stroke from which he never recovered, and in 1874 Eng awoke one morning to find that his brother had died during the night. Within three hours, Eng too had passed away.
With a life story as remarkable as that, it’s easy to see how Chang and Eng helped to establish the word Siamese across the Englishspeaking world.
As Chang and Eng’s parents were of Chinese descent, in their native Siam the brothers were known as the ‘Chinese twins’.
A popular etymological legend claims the brothers’ names mean ‘left’ and ‘right’. Despite being untrue, the myth nevertheless inspired a poem by the American journalist and writer William Linn Keese:
Their names grew out of a family hitch,
How best to label t’other from which;
And we gather from this domestic plight That Chang meant ‘left’ and Eng meant ‘right’.
Proving just how quickly Chang and Eng established themselves as a sensation, a verb Siamese – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘to join, unite, or couple, after the manner of the Siamese twins’ – was first used in an edition of Fraser’s Magazine in May 1830, just nine months after the brothers arrived in America. In a discussion of a new divorce bill recently debated in the House of Commons, the magazine lamented:
The instant the smiling pair leave the church, and the blushing bride hangs on the arm of her simpering swain, they become one with such intensity, that you might as well try to hew adamant with a straw as effect a separation. They are dovetailed into an unfrangible integer – Siamesed by a cord which defies the knife of the most skilful surgeon that ever shred limbs in an hospital.
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