Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Legend of Boon Tan

This will only be of interest to Wesleyan University alumns and Buffy fans.

When I was a college frosh, in 1986, I remember hearing about "Boon Tan." Boon Tan, I was told by my RA, was a student who had been expected on campus several years earlier to begin his freshman year. His luggage arrived, but he never did. There were strange, even borderline racist drawings on the walls and in the tunnels of a zigzag mouth and two slanted lines for eyes (supposed to be Asian). Or sometimes there was just the name, "Boon Tan."

At the time, I dismissed it as one of those stories that tend to linger on college campuses, and then I forgot about it for many years. But I was thinking about this recently, after a conversation with a friend about the film PCU (based on Wesleyan and written by two guys who were in my graduating class), which had me traipsing down memory lane. So I did a little Google search on "Boon Tan." I found that the University's archived materials contained material showing "the lampooning of Boon Tan, an Asian member of the class of 1980" as well as "a 1980 Alumni Reunion T-shirt 'Where Is Boon Tan?'"

When I saw the first comment about lampooning, I thought that perhaps Tan was a student who was the butt of racist jokes. But when I saw the second, I wondered if the story were, perhaps, true - maybe he really was a student who never arrived on campus.

Then I found this in an archived issue of The Wesleyan Argus (student newspaper):
"Boon Tan was a Malaysian student who failed to show up in 1972 and again the next year though his face was in the face book. Shortly thereafter 'the Boon began to appear on the University walls; not a representation of the missing student, but a symbol of evil incarnate. Midnight ceremonies were held. Mass gatherings cried out the word of Boon...' said John Moynihan in an issue of the Argus in 1983. Boon Tan had the largest following on campus."

So what I thought was a fictional story apparently did have its roots in a real person, though Boon Tan himself remains as much a mystery as ever. (I don't buy Boon Tan as "evil incarnate." Wes students are far too cynical for this sort of thing. If there were any midnight ceremonies invoking the name of Boon Tan, they involved grain alcohol, shrooms, and really good dance music. Or, possibly, pretentious theater students.)

I seem to remember an allusion to Boon Tan in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though I can't prove it. It would have been in one of the episodes in which Buffy and Willow first begin college - probably "The Freshman," the first episode of Season Four. I'll have to watch it again and find out. (Joss Whedon is a fellow alum - he graduated in 1987.)


Michael Dorsey said...

I graduated from Wesleyan in 1980, and I can confirm much of what you have heard. I googled the name of Boon Tan just out of curiosity about how long such a piece of folklore could survive. I came to Wesleyan in the Fall of 1975, and lived on Foss 4. A student named Boon Tan had in fact been assigned to that hall. He never arrived, and so his lucky roommate had two rooms all to himself. As a kind of joke he built a little shrine in the second room to the guy who had been good enough to let him have a private room. How exactly it got beyond that I don't know, but the name Boon Tan was kind of an inside joke around West College, and anyone could have started doing the graffiti in the tunnels. At some point in the next couple of years someone got up on the roof of Fayerwether Gym and painted the, as you say pretty racist, Boon Tan face on the roof. It stayed up there for quite a while, and no doubt pictures exist somewhere. It amazes me that the outline of this weird story should remain pretty accurate after so many years.

Michael Dorsey, Wesleyan '80

plain(s)feminist said...

Hi Michael,
Thanks for the comment! You might also be interested in this update I posted after another alum contacted me: http://plainsfeminist.blogspot.com/2006/08/behind-wesleyan-legend-boon-tan-part.html

bantexbindex said...

woooww quite interesting
if we think about the same Boon Tan then we're talking about Boon Tan the owner of www.worldip.tv which located on Malaysia. He's alive and become my client for IP TV business. He's good as person anyway

Funny to find out that he's a 'college legend' lol

Anonymous said...

You may have found the Argus article I wrote as a junior in 1985. It was an investigative journalism piece, I wrote the story of the student who never who showed. It was my intention, and I think I researched and executed it well, to explain the origin of the various incarnations of Boon Tan graffiti found all over campus, particularly in tunnels and stalls. Unfortunately the Argus creative staff, in a real maturityfest, decided to sprinkle variations of the classic Boon Tan graphic liberally about the columns of my article, and whatever actual words I wrote took upon the least relevance during the ensuing maelstrom of political correctness that swept over us. Wesleyan in the 80s was Ground Zero for PC, and I stepped into it deep with this one, inciting numerous hate letters from students and professors.

A quarter century later in a place far far away, I am a dedicated and caring career teacher and no longer find any amusement in these things, because most of my sense of humor and much of my soul have been carved out over years of witnessing the fallout from accusations of insensitivity, persecution, harassment, and younameitism against colleagues who misjudged their first amendment rights and academic freedom.

I have the article somewhere in my parents' attic, with the graphics and production notes, where it shall remain sealed for all eternity, or at least until my pension kicks in.

And Wesleyan, by the way, disappoints me. My wife and I, both alums, stopped giving to their annual campaign years ago. I barely relate to the place. As soon as I graduated, the bulldozers and cranes came in and they started building sports complexes and stainless steel and glass annexes, filling in every gap between the brownstones and every green space.

Though I have written dozens of recommendations over the years for fine students, virtually none of them have gained admission; though I've seen students with far lower scores and character breeze into the place with scholarships for reasons you can infer on your own.

So few of our own classmates from Wesleyan went into teaching, the University closed its education program. And once those PC flower-child baby boomers finished the social revolution and got their advanced degrees, they got into their Range Rovers and never looked back. With all my ivy-quality schooling, I can't save a nickel and don't expect to send my kids to a school like that.

Not that they'd get in anyway; Wesleyan is so intent on its mission of diversity that I doubt even Boon Tan could gain acceptance today.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Yeah, somehow I doubt that diversity has anything to do with any of the things you mention here. I'm sorry that you took the heat for what the editors decided to do. However, I think it's bizarre that you blame Wesleyan for accepting students of color whom you feel aren't as qualified as the (presumably white?) students whom you are writing letters for. First of all, I can think of several of my white, rich, male classmates who probably didn't deserve to be at Wes. Second, 10,000 students applied to Wesleyan for this academic year, so the fact that your students aren't getting in doesn't mean much. It's common knowledge that most of us who went there wouldn't get in today - or to most of the other ivies. The stakes are a lot higher now.

Please don't scapegoat students of color on my blog.

I'm not even going to touch your implication that the victims of insensitivity, harassment, etc. are the people who are insensitive and harass others.