Every family reunion is a special time for celebrating a common heritage, but this weekend’s 29th-annual gathering of Siamese Twins descendants also included network television coverage and announcements of a new museum and statue honoring the pair.
A highlight of the Bunker Reunion Weekend was a luncheon program Saturday at First Baptist Church attended by about 160 people, including Mo Rocca, a correspondent for the “CBS Sunday Morning” program and his production crew.
The TV network’s interest, which included coverage of various reunion events over two days, comes at a time when the story of Eng and Chang Bunker, conjoined twins from Siam (the modern-day Thailand), is riding a wave of popularity.
One reason for that is a recently released book about Eng and Chang which is highly acclaimed, “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History.” Its author, Yunte Huang, an English professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, also was in town for the reunion.
All this additionally is occurring as relations between Thailand and the U.S. are growing by leaps and bounds, drawn together by their common bond of Eng and Chang, who were born in 1811, toured with P.T. Barnum’s circus and settled in Surry County.
This included a recent trip to that country by Siamese Twins descendants which also was covered by the TV network for an upcoming “CBS Sunday Morning” segment.
In explaining that involvement Saturday afternoon, Rocca, the show correspondent, said the twins led remarkable lives that greatly eclipsed the notoriety of their physical oddity, while highlighting many American values.
“I love a story that people think they know,” Rocca told a reporter, “a story that grabs you for one reason and ends up with a much deeper meaning.”
He said this involves peeling away the obvious allure of Eng and Chang and going deeper.
“As kids, we are fascinated — I know I was — about the idea of Siamese twins,” said Rocca, a humorist and actor also known for creating and hosting “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” on the Cooking Channel and hosting “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation” on CBS.
The Siamese Twins’ saga starts as a “sideshow,” Rocca continued. “But it ends up being a story about family, perseverance, respect and the American Dream.”
Rocca drew a comparison with Mayberry, the fictional town based on Mount Airy which was popularized in “The Andy Griffith Show” starring the local native.
“The true story that comes from this town is vastly more interesting.”
Eng and Chang symbolize issues of immigration, slavery, opportunity, struggles and success — the whole picture of what it means for some people to become Americans, according to Rocca. “Basically, you get it all.”
Rocca said the “CBS Sunday Morning” program highlighting the Siamese Twins and their legacy will be telecast in a few months, but the date is not known at this point.
Tanya Jones of Mount Airy, a reunion organizer who is a great-great-granddaughter of Eng Bunker, expressed thanks to CBS during Saturday’s program for “what they’re doing with us and for us in spreading our story nationally and internationally.”
Statue and museum
Jones, the executive director of the Surry Arts Council that hosted some of this weekend’s reunion activities, also was at the forefront of ambitious plans announced Saturday regarding the Siamese Twins.
This includes the commissioning of a bronze, larger-than-life statue of Eng and Chang, for which the arts group is receiving donations. A model of the statue was unveiled Saturday by artist and sculptor Frank “Chip” Holton of Greensboro.
The statue will be part of another special project, a new museum in Mount Airy dedicated to the Siamese Twins, where the statue will be placed outside.
Jones said this will provide a storehouse for items related to the twins which now are scattered around the country. “There are so many treasures in so many houses,” she said.
Even in these early stages of the museum, someone has come forward offering to donate a flute once owned by one of the twins. “That is an unbelievable artifact,” Jones said.
Plans for the museum and statue have gained the favor of local officials.
“The Surry County governing body supports this effort,” said Eddie Harris, the chairman of the county board of commissioners, who read a proclamation during Saturday’s program.
It states that Surry officials recognize the value of Eng and Chang Bunker in opening up this area to international tourism that the new facilities will promote, including visitors from Thailand eager to see shrines to their native sons.
Jones said Saturday’s event was special in many ways, highlighted by the exposure provided by CBS.
“This is enormous national press for both Mount Airy and the Siamese Twins,” she said, “and will be invaluable in our efforts for the statue and Siamese Twins museum.”
Embassy group absent
The Saturday reunion program usually is attended by a delegation from the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, which has included Thailand’s ambassador to the U.S.
However, Thai officials were glaringly absent this weekend due to celebrating the birthday of the king of that nation. The embassy still continued a tradition of funding authentic fare for the lunch prepared and served by the Thai Cafe in Mount Airy.
Also, a number of people with Thai heritage attended from various locations in North Carolina and elsewhere, giving Saturday’s event an international flavor.
In addition to the luncheon, the reunion activities included special presentations Friday, featuring one by the author of the new book; a reunion picnic Friday on former Bunker land where Mayberry Campground is now located; and tours of the twins’ gravesite.
At Saturday’s event there were the obligatory family reunion announcements about who traveled the farthest distance (Ohio) and the recognizing of descendants of the various lines of the Eng and Chang clan that included more than 20 children.
Then there was the announcing of the youngest and oldest persons attending.
Even with the CBS cameras rolling, moderator Albert Blackmon Jr., another of the brothers’ 1,500-plus descendants, offered a simple message to sum up the gathering:
“To me personally, this is all about being connected.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.