The annual reunion of descendants of the Original Siamese Twins this coming weekend here will be special in itself — with the gathering now in its 25th year — but also because of an esteemed visitor.
Vijavat Isarabhakdi, Thailand’s ambassador to the United States, will take time out from his duties in Washington, D.C., to visit Mount Airy for a reunion luncheon Saturday honoring the legacy of Eng and Chang Bunker. They hailed from Thailand in the early 1800s, when it was known as Siam, and eventually settled in this area and raised large families after touring with P.T. Barnum’s circus.
This will mark Isarabhakdi’s first trip to Mount Airy, although his predecessor, Dr. Chaiyong Satjipanon, and an entourage from his office in Washington attended the reunion luncheon last year at the First Baptist Church fellowship hall. An impetus for that appearance was 2013 being the 180th anniversary of diplomatic relations being established between the U.S. and Thailand.
But in remarks to the gathering, Satjipanon said other official visits would be made as part of a continuing effort to grow the relationship between the Thai people and residents of Mount Airy.
While Satjipanon has stepped down since appearing here last July, that return engagement will feature his successor, Isarabhakdi. Thailand ambassadors to the U.S. typically change about every two years.
“He told us last year that he would like to come,” Zack Blackmon Jr., a reunion organizer and great-great-grandson of Eng Bunker, said of Isarabhakdi. He said the fact the ambassador will now do so is “absolutely awesome.”
Blackmon agreed that last year’s visit by the ambassador at that time has helped spawn an ongoing relationship between local residents linked to the twins and modern-day Thailanders. This involved members of his family — including Blackmon, his wife Sherry and mother Betty — attending a birthday reception for the king of Thailand last December in the nation’s capital.
The reunion organizer indicated that Thai officials are eager to embrace U.S. descendants of Eng and Chang Bunker, who have a kind of rock-star status in their home country today. While in Washington, local residents were interviewed for Thailand television regarding their ancestry.
Further illustrating the magnitude of the king’s 86th birthday concerning international relations, a member of the Kennedy family — Patrick Kennedy — spoke at the reception on behalf of Secretary of State John Kerry. Kennedy recognized the long-lasting bond between the U.S. and Thailand as part of a celebration of National Day.
Members of Congress and other governmental representatives and Thai military officials also attended.
Meanwhile, last year’s appearance by the Thailand ambassador in Mount Airy gave the local reunion luncheon an international flavor and provided a big boost overall, with attendance put at more than 200 people.
“It was way more than we expected last year,” Blackmon said of an event that drew attendees from as far away as Las Vegas and Colorado.
In addition to Thai officials coming here, local descendants of the twins have journeyed to their birthplace.
The upcoming luncheon will be a time of fellowship and family history as other reunions are, with the added element of cultural exchange that will include performances by a classical Thailand dancer and authentic Thai food.
Local elected officials also are scheduled to speak during the event.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.