Whenever you hear the word “Siamese” most people will think of either “Siamese cats” or the “Siamese twins”. However, not everyone would associate that word with Thailand straight away. But, this is where they both originated. Today I want to give you an extract from a book called Children of Thailand, published by The National Identity Board. It tells you the story of the famous Siamese Twins.
The Siamese Twins
Undoubtedly the most famous of all Thai children, at least as far as the Western world is concerned, were the original Siamese twins, who in the 19th century became celebrities throughout America and most of Europe.
Born in 1811 to a hard-working peasant family, the twins were discovered one afternoon in 1824 by an English trader named Robert Hunter, then living on the river in Bangkok. “His eye was caught by a strange object moving through the water,” says one account by the American missionary, Dan Beach Bradley. “It was a creature that appeared to have two heads, four arms and four legs, all of which were moving in perfect harmony. As Mr. Hunter watched, the object climbed into a nearby boat, and to his amazement he realized that he had been looking at two small boys who were joined together at the chest”.
Hunter saw the commercial possibilities of exhibiting Eng and Chang, as the twins were named, and eventually persuaded both their mother and the Thai authorities to let them be taken abroad. They left on April 1, 1829 and never returned to their native land, though it was because of them that millions of Westerners first learned of the distant kingdom known as Siam.
Over the next 45 years the boys traveled extensively, appearing before enthusiastic crowds under various management, including that of the great showman P.T. Barnum. During this time they learned to speak and write English fluently and generally impressed all who met them with their charm and intelligence, not to mention the extraordinary co-ordination with which they performed athletic tricks. Medical studies were made, and several proposals were made to sever the thick band of flesh that joined them, but these were never attempted because of the unknown dangers involved.
The twins eventually became American citizens and, settling in North Carolina, married two sisters, Sarah and Adelaide Yates. The unconventional marriages were, by all accounts, happy; Chang and Adelaide had ten children in all, while Eng and Sarah had twelve. They lived in separate houses, a mile apart, and for 25 years alternated between the two, with the twins spending three days at each.
Chang developed severe bronchitis in January of 1874 and died five days later. Eng succumbed a few hours afterwards, before a planned operation to separate the twins could be performed. They were buried in the Baptist cemetery in White Plains, North Carolina, later to be joined there by their wives. One source estimates that the twins have about a thousand descendants still living in the United States, some of them in the same district where Eng and Chang spent their last years.
At the time the Siamese twins died, it was generally agreed that any attempt to separate them would have been fatal. Today, thanks to advanced medical knowledge, it would probably be possible; several Siamese twins have been separated in Bangkok and they are now enjoying normal lives.
A few years back I visited their birth place in Samut Songkhram. About 4 kms out from the city center you can find this statue of the twins and a small museum. At the time I was there it was being renovated. Maybe it is finished now. I have been wanting to visit this area again for some time. Maybe I should go down there during the October school holidays. Of course I will take along my Thai edition of “Unseen Thailand”. I will let you know later what I find.