The world’s attention recently was focused on the daring cave rescue of a youth soccer team and coach in Thailand, and Mount Airy will be in the spotlight later this month through another event involving that country.
This will occur during the 29th-annual Bunker Reunion Weekend on July 27-29 celebrating Eng and Chang Bunker, the first Siamese twins to receive worldwide recognition.
The gathering will include a production crew from the CBS television network and a visit by the author of an acclaimed new book about the Bunkers, who migrated to Surry County in the 1800s from their native Siam, now Thailand.
A delegation from the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington also has been attending the reunion in recent years as part of a growing mutual appreciation of the twins’ legacy by the U.S. and Thailand.
It is generally an occasion for some of the brothers’ 1,500-plus descendants to meet in their home community of Mount Airy to remember the Bunkers’ legacy through private events
However, several activities, including exhibits, presentations and tours, will be open to the public.
Author to speak
One highlight will be a presentation by Yunte Huang, author of the recently released book, “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History.” It has been commended by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Huang, who teaches English at the University of California-Santa Barbara, will speak on July 27 at 2:15 p.m. at the Historic Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy. During the presentation, which is free and open to the public, he will discuss his book and new documents about the twins.
“The creative, enterprising spirit of the Siamese Twins is still very much alive in America, and their legacy has remained especially strong among their proud descendants,” the author said in a statement.
“Huang approaches the story from a totally different way,” remarked Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council, who is a great-great-granddaughter of Eng Bunker. “He adds context, which helps you understand the reason things happened the way they did and makes for good reading.”
Eng and Chang Bunker, who were born in 1811 and died in 1874, achieved much during their lifetime, including touring with P.T. Barnum’s circus before settling down just outside Mount Airy.
They were among the first Buddhists in the United States, earned U.S. citizenship, married local sisters when mixed-race marriages were unpopular and are the only conjoined twins to ever have children – 22 in all.
“It never ceases to amaze me that after 200 years there’s still an unbelievable amount of interest in the twins and their story,” said Jones, who believes this should be maximized.
“As a family member, I think it is a critical time to take action to preserve the legacy of Eng and Chang, as they were born over 200 years ago and family members are spread far and wide,” she added Friday.
”It is important not only for descendants but for the incredible cultural significance of their lives and accomplishments.”
• Before Huang’s presentation on July 27, Ryan Pino, a graduate student at Yale Divinity School, will speak on the twins’ achievements at 1 p.m. at the Earle. Pino is a great-great-great-great-grandson of Chang Bunker.
Pino, originally from Lebanon, Tennessee, will speak on Chang and Eng’s achievements, focusing on their American citizenship and their religion. He lived in China for several years, including working as an English teacher in Chengdu.
His interest in Southeast Asian and Chinese cultures was stimulated when his grandmother told him that he was a descendant of Chang.
• Along with the presentations by Huang and Pino, another public offering during the reunion weekend will include guided tours to the twins’ gravesite at White Plains Baptist Church on July 28 from 3 to 4 p.m.
• Folks can also visit the Siamese Twins Exhibit at the Surry Arts Council. It will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on July 27-28 and 1 to 5 p.m. on July 29.
The exhibit features new items from a recent Thailand trip by Eng and Chang descendants including Zack Blackmon Jr. of Mount Airy, Jones’ brother, and is being readied for the reunion.
“We are working on raising funds for projects that have been discussed for many years, including a Siamese Twins statue and a museum dedicated solely to the twins,” Jones disclosed Friday. “Numerous other projects are under way.”
The timing is right for highlighting the unique legacy of Eng and Chang Bunker, according to Jones.
“The resurgence of interest caused by the increasing focus on the twins in Thailand as a tourism hook over the past five to six years and by recent books published on various aspects of the twins’ lives makes this an opportune time to bring these projects to fruition,” she pointed out.
“Many descendants are on board and it’s a pivotal time for us with the incredible publicity and international interest.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.