115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

I Dream of Gotanda’s Chang and Eng: Exploring Asian American Identity Formation in 19th Century America

Jenna Gerdsen, University of Maryland, College Park

This paper analyzes Philip Kan Gotanda’s play I Dream of Chang and Eng by synthesizing Muñoz’s queer of color critique with McRuer’s queer disability theory. The play imagines the ‘Siamese Twins’ self-display as disidentifying with their race and disability. Analyzing how Gotanda imagines their movement between nations, racial categories, and (dis)ablility, I argue that Gotanda’s use of movement shows the liminality of the contemporary Asian American experience. 

Proposal: 

Philip Kan Gotanda’s play I Dream of Chang and Eng, was developed and premiered at UC Berkeley during the 2010-11 academic year. However, Gotanda dreamt about Chang and Eng Bunker for twenty years before he even wrote a single line of dialogue. It is incredibly difficult to ‘know’ anything about these marginalized historical figures due to their vulnerable, 19th century social positions. Gotanda includes himself in the title of the play to acknowledge Chang and Eng’s subalternity and to create alternative images of them. Chang and Eng Bunker were Thai-American, conjoined twin brothers known as ‘The Original Siamese Twins.’ They were ‘discovered’ by a Scottish merchant in a province near Bangkok and brought to the United States in 1829 and were displayed as curiosities at around age eighteen. After years of being indentured to white businessmen, they were able to market and tour themselves. They used the money they earned being on display to buy slaves and a plantation in North Carolina.

 

Although Chang and Eng were American cultural phenomenons during a time when America was defining itself as a nation built on racial and disabled difference, there is still a lack of serious scholarship on them and how they impacted Asian American identity formation aside from Cynthia Wu’s book Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture (2012). I will fill this scholarly void by examining the historic formation of Asian American identity in relation to normalizing categories of race and disability. I do so by analyzing Gotanda’s use of movement to (re)imagine the historical figures of Chang and Eng Bunker.

 

The play is a non-linear and dreamlike exploration of the Bunkers’ lives from birth to death. Like a long and vivid dream, scenes flow between a variety of spaces, unfolding narrative action and flashbacks, creating a moving stage picture of interwoven images and memories. The scenes that I analyze stage Chang and Eng’s trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic journey from Siam to Boston. I consider how Gotanda uses these scenes to compose Chang and Eng’s movement across oceans, stages, race and disability to show how Chang and Eng disidentify with the ways in which their  embodied differences are perceived in the antebellum United States.

Gotanda must dream because it is the only way to see these figures beyond 19th century racism, stigma, and phobia. Gotanda’s presentation of Chang and Eng in a dreamlike quality shows the quickly changing positions of Asians in 19th century America. I argue that Gotanda envisions Chang and Eng as a pendulum of identity to show the liminal and quickly changing position of Asians in 19th century America. Gotanda’s dreaming crips history which allows him to imagine Chang and Eng’s arduous identification process in an alternative world--our own contemporary world. He graciously invites the audience to dream with him and envision Chang and Eng as three-dimensional characters that initiate profound insights on racial identity formation in 19th century America which ultimately help the audience better understand the 21st century American hierarchy. By cripping Chang and Eng’s life history, Gotanda transforms our present moment into a hopeful dream.

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