The Original Siamese Twins

by Tobi Poster-Su

Chang and Eng ( and ) were born in 1811 in Siam (now Thailand) to a Ti-eye, a Chinese fisherman, and Nok, a Siamese-Chinese duck farmer. They were conjoined at the sternum by a band of flesh and cartilage; their livers were connected through the band, while all other organs were separate.

Part of a large and thriving Chinese community in Siam, they were known locally as the Chinese twins, and spent their childhoods helping their mother raise ducks. In 1829, at age 17, the brothers were taken to the USA as indentured servants by Scottish merchant Robin Hunter, and American sea captain Abel Coffin. Hunter and Coffin exhibited them as ‘freaks’ for their own profit both in the UK and across the USA. The twins were viewed by the public and examined, often invasively, by doctors, as fascinated by their racial otherness as by their conjoined bodies.

In 1832, the twins demanded and gained their independence from Coffin, who later claimed to have given them ‘the damnedest thrashing they ever had in their lives’. Now self-managed, they continued to exhibit themselves for their own profit, and by 1839, having amassed a significant fortune, they settled in a small town in North Carolina. Here they became American citizens despite federal law restricting naturalisation to ‘free white persons’. This is likely due to a loophole; the very low numbers of Asians in the United States meant that they did not yet belong to a recognised racial category. A significant influx of Chinese immigrants from the 1850s onwards prompted the racialisation of Asians and by the 1880s a series of hostile immigration laws had closed any such loopholes. The twins took the surname Bunker, and when writing in English referred to themselves variously as Chang and Eng and simply Chang-Eng, using both plural and singular pronouns (we/I).

In 1843, despite public concern over both their racial and physical difference, the brothers married two American sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates. They continued to tour on and off, but also farmed their land and bought and sold slaves, including many women and children. While they continued to experience racial prejudice and suspicion, they also enjoyed a degree of white-adjacent privilege entirely unavailable to the human beings they traded. When the Civil War broke out they supported the Confederate States, which ultimately led to them losing much of their wealth, forcing them back into touring.

In 1870, while returning from a trip to the UK, Chang suffered a stroke. As his health deteriorated he began drinking, which placed occasional strain on his relationship with Eng, leading to a number of physical fights. Eng continued to care for his brother but in 1874 Chang succumbed to bronchitis. As they shared a circulatory system, Eng died within hours of his twin. Their bodies were transported to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia by surgeons who had been granted permission to examine the bodies by Chang and Eng’s widows, on the condition that no incisions were made in their connecting band and that they were returned intact. To the distress of their families, they were returned without lungs, entrails and liver. Though they had travelled the world, they never returned to Siam.

The research for CHANG AND ENG AND ME (AND ME) and biography has been greatly aided by Yunte Huang and his biography Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and their Rendezvous with American History.

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