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Ambassador’s visit gives Bunker reunion international flavor

By Tom Joyce

July 28, 2013

Saturday’s reunion of Eng and Chang Bunker descendants had a decidedly international flavor — right down to the Thai food served for lunch.


If one didn’t know better, he or she might have thought a United Nations event was taking place in some overseas locale. But the reunion actually was being held at First Baptist Church in Mount Airy, where a crowd estimated at more than 200 filled the fellowship hall to celebrate a historic link between the Original Siamese Twins and their adopted homeland.


Among those gathered were Thailand’s ambassador to the United States, Dr. Chaiyong Satjipanon, and other representatives from his office in Washington.


The embassy’s presence at the 24th annual reunion of Eng and Chang descendants was the first for that gathering, and also represented a first for Mount Airy itself, according to Mayor Deborah Cochran. She said checks with other local officials determined that Saturday was the first time a foreign ambassador of any kind has visited the city.


A catalyst for Satjipanon’s appearance at the reunion was the 180th anniversary of diplomatic relations being established between the U.S. and Thailand, formerly known as Siam, which is being celebrated this year.


“I believe there will be more Thais coming to this city,” the ambassador said in his keynote address during the reunion.


Satjipanon indicated that “the most famous Siamese twins in the world” — who came to this country in 1828 and later raised large families in Surry County — were pioneers of the relationship that now includes a mutually beneficial business and industrial trade program.


It is hoped that a sister-city bond will be developed between Mount Airy and Samut Songkhram Province, where the twins were born in 1811, the Thai ambassador said before leaving the stage to an enthusiastic standing ovation. He spent much time at the reunion posing for photographs and autographing various books on the twins for Bunker family members.


Adding to the atmosphere Saturday was a display highlighting the U.S.-Thailand history, and the appearance of Thailand’s flag at the speaker’s podium alongside the Stars and Stripes.


A Thai dancer also performed during the event to native music.


With the Thailand group expressing its appreciation for the opportunity to meet Bunker descendants, city and county government officials were equally pleased with the ambassador delegation’s presence, and pointed to the pride this area has in the twins.


Mayor Cochran, in her remarks to the crowd Saturday, referred to the Eng and Chang Bunker Bridge that spans Stewarts Creek on U.S. 601 and its symbolism.


“Eng and Chang built a bridge that has brought two nations together,” she said. “Just look around you.”


This was echoed by Eddie Harris, the chairman of the Surry Board of Commissioners, who addressed the audience on behalf of county government. “We are grateful for the Bunker family and we appreciate the rich history the family has contributed to the county, nation and world as well,” Harris said.


He also told the Thai ambassador: “The American people will never forget your friendship.”


Paul Johnson, another county commissioner, said of the 180-year relationship with Thailand that “we hope to continue that for a long time.”


Cochran presented the ambassador with a key to the city and he in turn gave her a glass-encased model of a elephant, a symbol of Thailand.


Twins Hold Records

A historical perspective of the famous twins also was offered by Melvin Miles, a former teacher who recently authored a book, “From Siam to Surry — a Journey.”


Miles, whose great-great-grandfather, Charles Harris, was the manager for Eng and Chang Bunker for about 10 years and played a role in their settling in North Carolina, said they still hold three world records.


They lived longer than any other set of conjoined twins has, from 1811-1874, and were the only ones to marry, Miles said. The Bunkers also are the only Siamese twins who have had children — 21 between them, to be exact.


“I hope you can stay connected — just as Eng and Chang did,” Miles told the descendants.


They came from as far away as Las Vegas and Colorado, based on a portion of the reunion that honored those traveling the longest distance to attend.


Zack Blackmon Jr., a reunion organizer, said the turnout this year was greater than usual, reflecting the appearance of the ambassador.


Matthew Chris Bunker of Clemmons, a fifth-generation descendant of Eng Bunker, said that if the twins were alive today, they’d likely be happy about how their family has evolved.


“They’d be impressed,” Bunker said. “I’m sure they would be quite excited about having (such) a legacy.”


Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or tjoyce@civitasmedia.com.