The story of America's most famous nineteenth-century Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874)—twins conjoined at the sternum by a band of cartilage and a fused liver, who were “discovered” in Siam by a British merchant in 1824, and went on to become wealthy celebrities in the Jacksonian US South.
That they would eventually identify as part of the white oppressor class that dehumanized others is one of many paradoxes explored by Huang in this contemplative yet engrossing volume ... Chang and Eng became an immediate national sensation, giving Huang a bounty of sources from which to choose when tracing the contours of their story ... he twins did seem determined to be identified as Southern gentry. In addition to owning slaves, they supported the Whigs and became ardent supporters of the Confederacy, sending two of their sons to fight in the Civil War. Huang is right to point out the cruel irony in all of this, but when he characterizes his subjects as 'two brothers formerly sold into indentured servitude and treated no better than slaves,' he inadvertently downplays the incomparable brutality of the slaveholding system in order to heighten the contradictions ... Huang writes movingly about the twins’ painful end in 1874, when Chang, a heavy drinker, died and the teetotaling Eng perished soon after.
...an excellent addition to a shelf of books on the lives and cultural afterlives of the Siamese Twins ... Along the way, Huang offers something of a master class in how to turn notations in a financial ledger into an outline of cultural history ... Learned and playful, Inseparable draws on Huang’s personal experiences and his astonishing literary and historical knowledge.
Mr. Huang does an excellent job in depicting an antebellum America hungry for diversion from the brewing conflict over constitutional slavery. His descriptions of the New York City of that era, and of the show-business personalities the twins met (including Barnum), are raffish and vivid. And the great question he poses is compelling: Were Chang and Eng 'freaks' due only to their physical appearance? Or were they also freaks due to their race? ... Mr. Huang is less successful in depicting the two men as individuals ... Despite its shortcomings, Inseparable is a compelling study, and its author is unafraid of enlivening his narrative with a playful intelligence, an attractive humor, and incidents of his own life as an Asian American living in the South.