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Alex Sink says grit and pride were legacy of famous ancestors, Siamese twins Chang and Eng

MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — If Alex Sink makes history and becomes Florida's first female governor she still won't be the most celebrated member of her family. That distinction belongs to her great-grandfather, an erudite world traveler who in his day was more famous than kings, queens and presidents.

We all have eccentric relatives, but Sink has a doozy: Great-granddad was Chang Bunker, one half of the original Siamese twins.

The identical brothers, Chang and Eng Bunker, spent their 63 years attached at the base of their chests by a 5-inch-long band of flesh. They traveled the world as curiosities before finally settling as gentlemen farmers in the foothills of North Carolina.

"I have these memories as a child when we'd go into town — Main Street, Mount Airy. We'd go into stores and I remember sometimes the clerks would look at me and say, 'Why, you must be one of those Bunkers.' Because I had slanty eyes,'' recalled Sink, who grew up in Chang Bunker's farmhouse.

"I would stick my chest out and say, 'Yes, I am,' '' she said. "I was taught to be very proud about my heritage and I am."

• • •

Sink's hometown of Mount Airy, population 8,500, is figuratively and almost literally Mayberry.

It's the childhood home of Andy Griffith and an inspiration for the Andy Griffith Show. Locals say they still don't feel the need to lock their cars, unless it's corn season and they have a dozen juicy, just-picked ears in the backseat.

In 1843 Chang and Eng married two local sisters in this community 37 miles northeast of Winston-Salem. Between them they fathered 21 children while still attached.

Don't ask. No one knows the mechanics, and Bunkers aren't keen on speculating. A generation ago, that whole sex question made discussion of "The Twins" off-limits for many of the descendants.

"We had an aunt who had about six children, who were never told about the Siamese twins. When we went to visit them in eastern North Carolina we were under an oath never to mention anything about it," recalled Sink, who shares the name of Chang's wife, Adelaide.

"There was always that speculation: Two conjoined twins who were married and had 21 children? But people used to be much more Victorian about things, and there was also a desire to blend in and not be different.''

At least 1,000 descendants still live in and around Surry County and hundreds more are spread across the country. These days no one is reluctant to talk about Chang and Eng.

"It's part of something that the whole family celebrates," Ken Bunker, 57, a great-great grandson of Eng from Silver Spring, Md,, said recently at the Bunker's annual family reunion in Mount Airy. "It's part of the family that makes us not better and not worse — but special."

• • •

Chang and Eng were born on a houseboat in 1811 in Siam (now Thailand) to ethnic Chinese parents. News of the shocking deformity spread fast. The king initially ordered them killed but then thought better of it.

Before long the boys were not only accepted, but marveled at for their uncanny grace and ability to coordinate and perfectly anticipate each other's movements while running, swimming, climbing and jumping.

By age 15 they had become successful duck and egg merchants, when a Scottish trader spotted what he first thought was "a strange animal" with two heads swimming in the river. The trader and an American captain within two years persuaded the boys to go abroad and travel on display.

They became international sensations on the freak show circuit, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors paying to see them perform acrobatics, play chess and answer questions. Newspapers chronicled their lives, and Mark Twain wrote a short story about them.

The brothers quickly learned English, rid themselves of a manager they thought exploitative, and charmed many of those who came to know them. Eng was quiet and thoughtful, Chang outgoing and quick tempered, but both enjoyed fine clothes, literature and theater.

Over and over they met with top doctors across the world who all concluded that separating the twins would likely kill them.

In 1839 the celebrity twins had enough money that they decided to retire from the exhibition circuit. They chose an isolated area in northwest North Carolina that they fell in love with while visiting a friend in the area for vacation.

As exotic as they were, their story is as American as can be: individuals overcoming adversity through grit, perseverance and character. Ultimately they settled in a backwoods area that quickly accepted them as friends and neighbors known for innovative farming and excellent hunting.

"It's stunning really,'' Sink said. "These two brothers that were circus attractions chose to settle down in this little tiny piece of North Carolina in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and were accepted.

"A lot of it is about the history of North Carolina. It was always said when I was growing up North Carolina was the valley of humility between two valleys of conceit — Virginia and South Carolina."

The twins arbitrarily picked Bunker as a last name, and in a joint ceremony, married two local sisters, Adelaide and Sarah.

"May the connection be as happy as it will be close," one North Carolina paper editorialized.

As the families grew, the twins decided they needed separate houses. Every three days they would alternate homes, with one brother taking charge and the other being a passive observer.

It remained an often tough existence, particularly as Chang frequently became a raging drunk. His brother would not become intoxicated, but would have to put up with Chang's violent outbursts.

Then one chilly day in January 1874, Chang developed bronchitis, and Eng awoke to find his brother dead. Eng died about three hours later, reportedly of shock.

Fearing ghoulish entrepreneurs would steal the bodies, they initially were buried in the basement of Chang's house before being shipped to Philadelphia, where doctors made a plaster cast of their body and removed its fused liver. They were buried in Chang's front yard until 1917, when the twins and their wives were moved to the cemetery of White Plains Baptist Church, which the twins helped build on land they donated.

• • •

A short walk from that cemetery, past Bunker Road, past Eng and Chang Road and past Barney Fife Boulevard, dozens of descendants recently gathered over casseroles and barbecue for the annual Bunker family reunion.

"I am so proud. Bunkers are just good people, let me tell you," declared Betty Bunker Blackmon, motioning to one of her kin. "Milton, come here, I want you to agree with me on something: The Bunker twins believed very strongly in education. They were well educated, and that was really important to them."

Alex Sink and her immediate family missed that picnic, but back at Chang's house, her younger sister, Dottie Sink, recounted that while their mother, Chang's granddaughter Adelaide, was reluctant to talk about it, their father made sure they appreciated their heritage.

"I never looked at it as being in a freak show. I immediately looked at it as how did these two guys survive and thrive and produce all these children, and produce all these successful children, and have everything turn out unbelievably well,'' said Kester Sink, 87.

Sitting by her father in Chang's old farmhouse, Dottie nodded in agreement.

"Daddy is the one who really placed that in our minds — that this is so exceptional what these two men did. He is the one that planted that seed that this is something wonderful about your heritage."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Alex Sink says grit and pride were legacy of famous ancestors, Siamese twins Chang and Eng 09/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 5:51pm]

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