Relations with Russia are a little shaky right now, and don’t even talk about North Korea and Iran — but judging by a gathering in Mount Airy, the U.S. and Thailand are on firm footing.
Saturday’s well-attended 28th-annual reunion of descendants of the Original Siamese Twins, Eng and Chang Bunker, allowed family members from across the nation to reconnect for another year.
The event also celebrated the equally strong bond between two countries — as evidenced by the first-ever visit to this city by Pisan Manawapat, who serves as the ambassador to the United States from Thailand, where the twins were born.
“A real American dream”
Eng and Chang’s long legacy has survived through thick and thin — embodied by the 21 children fathered between them, and their thousands of descendants living today. The same is true for the United States and Thailand (the former Siam), Manawapat said in remarks to an enthusiastic audience assembled for the reunion in the First Baptist Church fellowship hall.
Manawapat said he was happy to be in Mount Airy to take part in what the ambassador termed “a celebration of a wonderful story — a story of love, compassion and hard work, a story of a dream come true.”
For them, he added regarding the Siamese Twins, “a real American dream.”
Manawapat — part of an entourage from the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington — related how Eng and Chang were born in 1811 in modern-day Thailand. Connected by a 5-inch-long band of cartilage above their waists, the brothers left home and toured with P.T. Barnum’s circus, with which they captivated audiences entranced by their then-unprecedented physical oddity.
The Bunkers eventually settled in Surry County, where they were farmers as well as prolific procreators after marrying Quaker sisters.
“Of all the places they saw,” the visiting ambassador said of the twins’ vast travels in both this country and Europe, “they decided to call the great state of North Carolina home.”
Manawapat said this might have been due to reasons such as the state’s pleasant climate or scenery. “But I think the most likely of all is the famous Southern hospitality which reminded them of home.”
The twins’ embracing of America mirrored the fledgling friendship being forged between the U.S. and Thailand, which was bolstered by the signing of a treaty with Thailand in 1833 during Andrew Jackson’s presidency — the first with a Southeast Asian nation.
“Don’t show it to your president,” Manawapat joked regarding Donald Trump, who has worked to dismantle the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and other pacts with foreign countries. But the Thai ambassador guessed that if Trump did review the treaty with his homeland, even he would consider it a good thing.
“I hope very much that the enduring friendship that Eng and Chang started more than 200 years ago will continue,” Manawapat said.
He pointed out that people are what make relationships work, not embassies, and expressed optimism that Eng’s and Chang’s many descendants will “carry the torch” for what they started.
Since Thailand’s ambassadors to the United States typically serve only about two years, Manawapat — a former Thai ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and India — said he will provide some key advice to his successors: “Come to Mount Airy as soon as possible.”
The foreign dignitary said of all the places he had been to in America, this was “the most friendly.”
In addition to attending the reunion luncheon at First Baptist Church and visiting a Siamese Twins exhibit of the Surry Arts Council, Manawapat enjoyed meeting Mount Airy Mayor David Rowe.
Rowe was equally impressed, both with the ambassador and the reunion itself.
“To see all of you who have come so far to be a part of the 28th reunion is so impressive to me, that you care so much for your family,” the mayor told the crowd. “I am deeply moved, actually.”
Rowe said it was an honor to have Manawapat in town.
“It’s not very often that Mount Airy is graced with a man whose credentials are so great.”
The mayor also offered a bit of humor in telling the ambassador that “I am so glad you are visiting Mount Airy today — to see what life in America is really like — not Washington, D.C.”
Bountiful love of family
While Bunker descendants seemed honored by the presence of the ambassador and the chance to enjoy an authentic Thai lunch provided by the embassy, as is the case with every such reunion, it was more about family Saturday.
Debbie Wiley, a great-great granddaughter of Eng Bunker, came all the way from San Francisco to attend Saturday’s gathering, where she was recognized as the descendant traveling the longest distance. Wiley was attending her second Siamese Twins reunion.
“Well, it’s just interesting to visit where my mother (Ann Lorraine Worrell of Surry County) grew up and meet my relatives,” Wiley said of her motivation for traveling cross-country.
Closer to home, Henry Bunker, 83, of Burlington — another descendant of Eng — has attended every Siamese Twins reunion since the events began in 1990. Bunker indicated that pride in family is what keeps him coming back every year, but being a descendant of the twins has been a mixed bag for him.
“I grew up in Orange County,” he said.
“When I started school, I was kind of looked down the nose at,” Bunker recalled, explaining that this was due to the Oriental features the Twins passed down to succeeding generations, which other kids would ridicule. “They’d call you names,” he said.
“But that’s diminished over the years.”
The pride and longevity of the family also was highlighted by Homer Bunker, a descendant who spoke at Saturday’s event, including recognizing the oldest and youngest in attendance, etc.
“We hear often the Bunker family might be dying out,” he said.
Yet as his words were nearly drowned out by crying babies, Bunker expressed his belief that the opposite scenario would prevail:
“The Bunker name will be carried on,” he said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.