Lecture tells American story of ‘Siamese twins’

Staff report

A lecture this month at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum will tell the story of “the original Siamese twins” and the sensation they created in 19th-century America.

The lecture by Yunte Huang, “A Game on the High Seas,” will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12.

It is based on his forthcoming book “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History.”

The book draws a portrait of Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874), twins conjoined at the sternum by a band of cartilage and a fused liver, who were “discovered” in Siam by a British merchant in 1824.

Bringing an Asian American perspective to this almost implausible story, Huang depicts the twins, arriving in Boston in 1829, first as museum exhibits but later as financially savvy showmen who gained their freedom and traveled the back roads of rural America to bring “entertainment” to the Jacksonian mobs.

Their rise from subhuman, freak-show celebrities to rich southern gentry; their marriage to two white sisters, resulting in 21 children; and their owning of slaves make not just another sensational biography but a Hawthorne-like excavation of America’s historical penchant for finding feast in the abnormal, for tyrannizing the “other” ― a tradition that, as Huang reveals, becomes inseparable from American history itself.

A Guggenheim Fellow, Huang is a professor of English at UCSB and the author of “Charlie Chan” (2010), which won the Edgar Award and was the finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum at the Santa Barbara Harbor opened in July 2000. Today, it attracts more than 20,000 visitors each year.

The museum is at 113 Harbor Way, Suite 190. Tickets are $5 for members and $15 for others. Log onto www.sbmm.org for more information.