Along with descendants of the Original Siamese Twins, who attended Saturday’s Eng and Chang Bunker family reunion from near and far, was a broadcast team from Voice of America.
Also noteworthy at the 26th-annual event was the appearance by a Royal Thai Embassy official, who credited an Eng and Chang “miracle” for his arrival after his original flight from New York City was canceled.
Saroj Thanasunti, minister and deputy chief of missions for the embassy based in Washington, D.C., apologized for being late to the event at the First Baptist Church fellowship hall in Mount Airy, for which he was special guest speaker.
But Thanasunti told the crowd of about 200 that on Saturday morning he didn’t think he would get here at all upon learning of the cancellation of his flight from New York to Raleigh. Thanasunti had been in the Big Apple attending a function involving Thai royalty, which prevented that country’s ambassador to the U.S. from attending the reunion.
The first thing he thought about in those tense moments was Eng and Chang, Thanasunti recalled in his remarks at the church.
“And I said, ‘make some miracle for me,’” he said regarding the flight.
He then learned from another passenger at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York that an alternate flight was available to North Carolina. Ironically, he was told this by a woman named Gillespie who has ties to Mount Airy due to her family moving here from another state as a result of the local textile industry.
Thanasunti indicated that Eng and Chang — who are heroes in their native Thailand (formerly Siam) — somehow must have played a role in allowing him to attend a reunion he called “beautiful and unforgettable.”
As was the case during the previous two gatherings of Bunker descendants, Saturday’s event had a decidedly international flavor. Along with the embassy delegation from Washington and the Voice of America’s Thai Service, there was a luncheon featuring Thai food catered by the embassy.
In addition to old photographs featuring Eng and Chang, historical displays on Thailand were part of the reunion and American flags rested alongside Thai flags on each table in the fellowship hall.
Thanasunti alluded to that alliance in his remarks, saying the significance of the event extends much further than a small city in North Carolina to include international implications.
He said it is symbolic of the longstanding relationship between two countries that first established diplomatic ties 182 years ago — about 20 years after Eng and Chang were born in the former Siam in 1811. The twins left in the 1820s and eventually lived in Surry County, producing a combined 21 children — many of whose descendants reunited Saturday.
“When we celebrate the history of Eng and Chang, we also celebrate the history of the relationship between the United States and Thailand,” Thanasunti said. He added that the local reunion is a “very remarkable” part of that relationship.
Thanasunti’s delegation and local representatives exchanged gifts with each other, and after he bowed to the audience and began to leave the stage those in attendance gave him a rousing standing ovation.
Voice of America
The bond between Mount Airy and Thailand also will be highlighted on an international level thanks to the presence at Saturday’s reunion of a Voice of America team from Washington.
The Voice of America (VOA), which is funded by the U.S. government, began in 1942 as a radio news service to provide a reliable source of information for people living in closed and war-torn societies.
More recently, its Thai bureau played a role in that regard by supplying news to citizens of Thailand after a military junta took power there in 2014 and suspended radio and television broadcasts.
The Voice of America countered that by expanding its programming, including making use of satellite and digital resources, to reach Thailanders.
Saturday, however, the news agency’s mission was more genteel.
Rattaphl “Ahn” Onsanit, international broadcaster for the VOA’s Thai Service, said it came to Mount Airy to produce programming portraying the importance of the event here.
“It is good to see this community unify with the people of Thailand,” Onsanit said.
“They think that is very important,” Suchada Maktara, another member of the Royal Thai Embassy staff, who had been to Mount Airy in the past, said of the Voice of America team’s interest.
“Eng and Chang are very important for Thai people,” Maktara emphasized.
“They’ve been wanting to do a documentary for some time,” she added of the Voice of America representatives, saying it is expected to be a multi-part production.
Video and audio programming regarding the reunion will be accessible at some point via the Voice of America Internet site, according to Maktari.
“A Family Feeling”
Steve Yokeley, Mount Airy’s mayor pro tem, who was among those addressing the crowd during Saturday’s program, also highlighted the themes of international relations and family ties in his remarks.
Looking around the room full of folks reflecting dual nationalities, Yokeley said, “I think people would like to live in peace with their fellow man, and I think this gathering is what it’s all about.”
Yokeley also said it was great “to see so many people from one family gathered at a reunion,” when often is not the case nowadays.
The elements of family further were emphasized Saturday by a roll call of members of the 21 family lines spawned by Eng and Chang, who were asked to stand in each case.
A check of the registration list revealed local attendees as well as others from cities in North Carolina and Colorado, Florida and others.
Bruce Peters of Windsor, Colorado — about 70 miles from Denver — was recognized as the person traveling the farthest distance to attend. Peters, a great-great-great-grandson of Eng Bunker, flew to North Carolina with his mother Pearl.
“We were here 10 years ago,” Peters said of the reunion, “and just thought it was time to come again.”
He said it was good to be in Mount Airy to celebrate his ancestry. “It’s definitely a family feeling.”
Peters agreed that people out West sometimes are skeptical when he tells them of his connection to the Original Siamese Twins. “They usually say, ‘yeah, right,’” he added. “But eventually they will believe it.”
Such a distinction might not have occurred if Eng and Chang had been born in the 20th rather than 19th century, said descendant Jim Haynes, one of several speakers offering interesting stories about the pair.
Countless physical examinations of the Siamese Twins during their lifetime produced the consensus that it would have been life-threatening to surgically separate them. That included one by Peter Mark Roget, a British physician and lexicographer best-known for the reference book “Roget’s Thesaurus.”
“Today, I understand surgery could be done in a matter of minutes,” Haynes added of a procedure to separate Eng and Chang, who were connected at the sternum by a small band of cartilage.
“But back in the 1800s they didn’t have the medical technology we have today — so it was just too dangerous.”
After Saturday’s activities at the church, a new reunion feature was planned — visits to former homeplaces of Eng and Chang as well as burial sites of family members.
“We look forward to another reunion next July,” said chief organizer Zack Blackmon Jr., a great-great-grandson of Eng Bunker.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.