In many ways, Cynthia Wu's Chang and Eng Reconnected can be read as an extended exploration of the numerous ways that the question "What is it?" has been posed, and answered, in relation to "The Original Siamese Twins." Because of its transdisciplinary approach and intimate close readings of a vast and varied archive, this question can also be asked of the book itself. Wu works within and across disability studies and Asian American studies to trace the Bunkers' material and metaphorical involvement in U.S. history, culture, and literature. As she demonstrates, Chang and Eng have been implicated in multiple and contradictory constructions of disability, race, class, and citizenship from their arrival in the United States at the age of eighteen in 1829 to the present.

The book is divided into three parts: each addresses different sites and modes of knowledge production about the twins and/or about the notion of a conjoined existence more broadly. In part one, "Locating Material Traces in the Archives" (Chapters 1-3), Wu examines the materiality of Chang and Eng's lives and deaths. Here, she analyzes historical, commercial, legal, and medical materials, including the brothers' marriage license and a post-mortem plaster cast of their upper body. In part two, "Reading the Literature and Visual Cultures" (Chapters 4-6), she focuses on Chang and Eng's direct appearance in cultural debates about citizenship and class in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, as well as their deployment in Asian American literary discussions of identity in the last half century. The third part, "Observing and Participating" (Chapter 7), consists of Wu's ethnographic analysis of the extended kinship network that has developed among Chang and Eng's descendants.

Given the amount of time and archival material the book covers, it is a credit to Wu's ability as a writer that she leads readers seamlessly from beginning to end. That said, the transitions from one chapter to the next can be abrupt and give the impression that the book is a collection of essays. However, this impression is not necessarily accidental; rather, Wu uses it to illustrate the shifting meanings that surround Chang and Eng. In the introduction, Wu correctly describes the book as a bridge between disability studies and Asian-American studies, but she articulates this bridge almost too well. As a disability studies scholar, I would have liked to see how the two fields contradict and complicate one another more explicitly.

Chang and Eng Bunker inhabit Wu's work as a "singular/plural" being. While it is not mentioned in the text, this notion has been developed by philosopher Jean Luc Nancy and describes the fundamental co-existence of meaning and matter in, through, and as bodies that are neither wholly integrated nor wholly distinct. Wu pays careful attention to this issue while writing about the twins, making good use of the slippages it demands. As she informs readers at the start of the book:

I reference Chang and Eng Bunker in the plural form to reflect how they almost always functioned in civic life as separate individuals. When I discuss their combined "body," however, I use the singular to express their shared somatic existence and their deliberate comanagement of embodiment. (3)

This complex and anomalous singular/plurality does not end with the twin's material body but extends to their appearance in social debate and literature as well. Chang and Eng, by name and through allusion, appeared within multiple stories by Mark Twain and cartoons by Thomas Nast, where they were seen as a model of necessary cooperation for the nation in terms of race and class. Also, they appear in Asian-American literature, where they are used to articulate and problematize the developing sense of Asian-American identity. In these ways, Chang and Eng Reconnected contributes to the growing body of literature within disability studies that works to extend the field's consideration of race. Wu accomplishes this by demonstrating race and disability as always-already interrelated categories.

Wu's nuanced reading of embodiment provides a way of conceptualizing and analyzing disability diaspora. It illustrates how fundamental shifts in thinking about embodied experience have matured within disability studies and are now making their way across other disciplines. While this is evident throughout the book, chapters three and seven are especially significant examples of this development. Wu's third chapter discusses the permanent Chang and Eng Bunker exhibit at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which includes their shared liver and the plaster cast mentioned above. Wu details the Mutter's slow transition from sterile medical archive to welcoming public museum through prolonged consideration of the plaster cast, particularly its incorporation into fine art. Wu's portrayal of the Mutter Museum also contributes to ongoing discussions of place within disability studies. She shows that the Mutter is animated by a medical(ized) sense of physical difference as well as a social(ized) regard for the objects it contains and the various lives that those objects represent. In this way, the Bunker's liver and cast, along with other pieces at the museum, have moved beyond either medical or public "curiosities" that are celebrated rather than merely stared at.

The theme of negotiated belonging continues in the final chapter as Wu traces the practices of kinship building that maintain and strengthen the extended Bunker family. In the annual Bunker family reunion, Wu identifies a move away from a firm distinction between who is and is not a part of the family towards the project and practice of alliance. The reunion began in the 1980s with only some of one of the brothers' descendants but now draws members from both sides of the family and beyond. While participants regularly number over one hundred, the reunion is only the pinnacle of a year-long series of activities and points of contact designed to foster this extensive kinship network. This sense of kinship is vital to the reunions as they include not only biological descendants of Chang and Eng, but also relations through marriage, and even the small cadre of academics and researchers who have been made to feel a part of the family.

The overall importance of this book was brought to life for me when a student heard me talking about it and asked, "What is it?" Although he serves on the Asian American council at my university and is interested in disability studies, as I outlined Wu's project he exclaimed, "That's a part of Asian-American history I'd never heard of." As a piece of scholarship, Chang and Eng Reconnected rests uncomfortably somewhere between disability studies and Asian-American studies, and it does so purposefully. Wu's work encourages general readers to wonder about their own embodied position(ing). It offers disability studies scholars an effective model for working with subjects that transcend multiple identity categories and academic disciplines.

Works Cited

  • Nancy, Jean Luc. Being Singular Plural. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2013 Ryan Parrey

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Terri Fizer.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)