If Eng and Chang Bunker were alive today, one observer believes the Original Siamese Twins would’ve been “overwhelmed” by a gathering Saturday in Mount Airy which reflected a lasting testament to their 1800s existence in Surry County.
The 27th-annual reunion of Bunker descendants included family members from across the nation, and even one who now lives in China; a delegation from the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C., representative of the land the twins hailed from; and a public television crew.
“It was a much bigger crowd than I expected,” said Zack Blackmon Jr., a great-great-grandson of Eng Bunker and chief organizer of the reunion, which drew at least 200 people.
Extra chairs had to be put up to accommodate those packing into the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church for a lunchtime event boasting a menu of Thai food and rich history surrounding two of this area’s most-fabled residents.
Bunker descendants — products of the 21 children the conjoined pair fathered between them while dividing their time between two homes just south of Mount Airy — came from all over the U.S.
A check of a registration list revealed attendees from New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina and a large contingent from this area, representing folks of all ages. Achieving the distinction for the family member traveling the farthest distance was Ryan Pino, who is studying in China.
Pino informed the crowd Saturday of research suggesting that Eng and Chang were of Chinese ethnicity, though they were born in 1811 in Siam, present-day Thailand. The twins, who were connected at the sternum by a small piece of cartilage, migrated to America, where they enjoyed celebrity status during a show business career that included touring with P.T. Barnum.
They settled in Surry County after visiting and falling in love with the mountains of western North Carolina, and along the way married Quaker sisters (whose Yates family descendants also attended Saturday’s reunion) — and the rest is history.
The remarkable story of the Original Siamese Twins — who died in 1874 at age 62 — also has taken on an international flavor through a growing relationship with officials of Thailand, as evidenced by the entourage from Washington at Saturday’s reunion.
With all the strife in the world today, the melding of two distinct cultures — one of a small Southern town and the other a nation on the other side of the world — was not lost on the participants. They sat together at tables adorned with tiny flags of America and Thailand displayed in the same containers.
“It’s interesting to me how such different cultures can come together and celebrate Eng and Chang Bunker,” Mayor David Rowe told the gathering.
“Our ties will continue to grow,” predicted Rowe, who was attending the Bunker reunion for the first time, after being elected mayor last November.
That was echoed by Pattrawan Vechasart, minister and deputy chief of missions, who spoke on behalf of the Royal Thai Embassy.
“The twins symbolize an enduring friendship between two nations,” she said, praising the value of countries being able to come together on a “people-to-people level.”
Blackmon referred to an element of that relationship forged since the last Bunker reunion in 2015, a vote by Mount Airy officials to launch a sister city arrangement with Samut Songkhram — the village in Thailand where Eng and Chang were born. This is expected to increase tourism and cultural exchanges between the two.
“There will always be a lasting kinship, and friendship as well, with Samut Songkhram,” Blackmon said.
Dorothy Haymore of Mount Airy, a great-granddaughter of Eng, also appreciated the international aspect of the reunion.
“I just love being around my family members from all over the country,” Haymore said.
“I really enjoy the Thai people here,” added the local woman, who visited Thailand in 1999 and saw the river the twins lived along.
Another highlight of the reunion was an appearance by D.G. Martin and others representing UNC-TV, who were shooting footage and gathering material for an upcoming program on North Carolina’s public television network.
Martin, a talk-show host for the system, explained that his visit stemmed from a newspaper column he authored about a book on the Siamese Twins which descendant Henry Bunker of Burlington read and then invited him to the reunion.
Officials at UNC-TV gave Martin the green light to come, since the network had not explored the lives of the twins before.
“So many things” interest him about the Original Siamese Twins, Martin explained. “I think the first thing is the extraordinary adaptability of these Asian boys to the North Carolina mountain region.”
The two strangers from a faraway land assimilated into life here and became well-respected members of the community, Martin said.
He wasn’t sure what kind of program will result on public television from the visit — and when — but said it will be a feature on one of the channels in the UNC-TV system.
Another highlight of Saturday’s event was a program by Jim Haynes of South Carolina, a great-grandson of Chang Bunker and recognized authority on the twins who talked about their unique history.
From the time they were born, all types of suggestions emerged on how to separate them.
“I am not convinced that they really wanted to be separated at that time,” Haynes added of the young men who subsequently left their homeland and sailed to America.
“Later on in life they did, but not at that time,” the family historian said. “Eng and Chang were having the time of their lives — they were the center of attention wherever they went,” including at exhibitions where people paid money to see them.
Photographs of the two tend to show them with serious expressions, which didn’t mirror reality, Haynes said.
“They liked having fun — they were down-to-Earth people,” he related. “They had a sense of humor.”
This sometimes included pranks, such as buying only one train ticket for the two of them and then taking advantage of the legal loophole whereby one twin could not be kicked off without also excluding the twin rightfully aboard.
Yet there was a downside to their lives, Haynes said, which reflects every person’s desire for solitude at times.
“We are talking about two men who never had the opportunity to be alone,” he said. “These two men were never more than 5 inches apart for more than 62 years.”
Haynes said the twins’ sex life also has been a source of fascination, including how they were able to father so many children under awkward circumstances.
“I don’t know how, I wasn’t there — but I’m glad they did, because otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
And what would the twins have thought about Saturday’s grandiose occasion celebrating their legacy?
“I think they would be completely overwhelmed with something like that,” Blackmon speculated of the twins, who he believes were modest people for the most part.
“But on the other hand, they were celebrities.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.