Monday, August 07, 2006

Behind the Wesleyan Legend: Boon Tan, Part Two

This post is directed toward the other social misfits, rebels, and high achievers who went to Wesleyan (the Connecticut one).

And now, the real story behind the legend of Boon Tan - with annotations by yours truly. Oppyman writes:

I googled the name Boon Tan tonight and found your posting from April. I need to correct some information for you. I am the person who first drew the Boon Tan face; I invented the legend. I did an interview with an Argus [Wesleyan student newspaper - plainsfeminist] reporter in the 80s on this. He intrepidly tracked down Boon's erstwhile roommate and this person referred the reporter to me. So somewhere in the Argus archives, a correct version of the Boon legend exists. I will now give you the story.

In the fall of 1976, Boon Tan was supposed to come to Wesleyan and live in Foss Hill, unit 4 [Hey! That was my frosh dorm!]. I was the head of West College at the time and took it as my responsibility to go around to every unit and meet everyone. So the guys in unit 4 knew me. (At the time, the only co-ed freshman unit in West College was on the top of unit two. Units one and four had males on the first floor and females upstairs. Unit 3 and the first floor of unit two were for upperclasspeople and were co-ed. We fought very hard for this and succeeded in getting this grudgingly from the housing office in the fall of 1975. But I digress.) [Ten years later, these halls were co-ed by room - one room would be two women, the next would be two men, etc. The bathrooms were also co-ed.]

Boon didn't show up during orientation. Word was that he would be coming during the first week of classes. He didn't. By the second week of classes, he wasn't there, but the guys in unit 4 and some of their friends in unit 1 (where I lived) started to play jokes on Boon's erstwhile roommate, Mitch Harwood. They would leave suitcases outside the room with notes saying Boon was at dinner. Or they would
call up and say they were Boon. One night Mitch went to take a call on the hall phone and his door blew closed, locking him out. Before security arrived a number of partiers arrived in the hall and Mitch wound up too intoxicated to do his work. (I believe he was in the college of social studies program and is now a very successful lawyer, but I'm not positive about either of these facts.) Back in
those days, security officers would not really mind if people were drinking and smoking in the halls as long as no fire detectors were set off; many officers took a toke tax. [This was true during my time, as well.] amidst the frivolity, someone asserted that Boon had planned this all along, to undermine Mitch. So the seed of Boon as an evil spirit was planted.

A few weeks later, a creepy incident on campus came to our attention. I was up on the second floor of unit 2, the all important experimental co-ed freshman hall (in its second year) when people started talking about it. apparently, a freshman woman on Foss Hill (I remember the name but won't say it) had left the university. She
had been stalked, essentially. (The term did not exist yet.) After receiving a number of notes from an unknown admirer, she found one on her pillow. She had not been in her room that evening and her door had been locked and she did not feel safe. (I cannot vouch for the veracity of any of this, beyond the fact that the woman went home. I believe she came back the next year.) A freshman woman who was
rapidly becoming one of my best drinking buddies told me the story and later that night after she went to bed, I took a small piece of paper about six inches by four inches and wrote on it "I rote the note" and made the Boon face, two slanted lines for eyes and the jagged inverted Vs mouth (if Boon is happy, usually over something
evil, the end Vs are Vs; if he is mad, the end Vs are inverted) and put it inside the little plastic nameplate on her door. She saw it the next day and knew it was me and laughed about it. And she showed it around to people.

What happened next was astonishing. People told me they loved the Boon face, which was really a racist perversion of the happy face. (I told the Argus reporter that I thought the whole Boon thing was a chance for everybody in the peace and love West College environment to let their dark sides out. Of course by the end of that school year cocaine began to make its loathsome appearance on campus and at least two people had acid related breakdowns, so Boon wasn't needed. And hindsight tells me that there were at least two women in West College with serious eating disorders and that two other women there had probably been molested by male relatives. Four or five people who were in heterosexual relationships during those years came out
later; how did they suffer at the time? I know that the woman that I wrote the Boon note to did. None of this was on my radar at the time, of course. But I digress.)

People started asking me what else Boon did. so I made up a few more Boon cartoons and posted them on the bathroom door of unit 1. On had Boon going for a walk in the
park with his pet piranha Fang. Boon had a Pol Pot for President T shirt on. I can't remember what went on in the cartoon, except that Boon said nasty things and did an upside down version of Spock's live long and prosper sign (which actually comes from a Jewish benediction) and said "Die soon and rot." I believe Boon addressed all the "round eyed devils" and told the decadent liberal West College people that they were bourgois pigs and would soon get theirs. I can't draw, by the way, so Boon was just a head on a stick figure and Fang was a fish shape lying on the ground; Fang had lots of teeth and his leash was a curved line.

Next, Boon had to fall in love of course. So in Boon meets Boonie, you had two stick figures with that face, one of which had two curved lines coming out of the side of her head. Each one was saying I love you to the other and each had a thought bubble coming out of their head which said (again, I love the innocence of the age) I will give him/her the clap. People liked that one a lot.

But by the next day, there were about ten or fifteen more cartoons on the door. Some were beautifully drawn. some in color. Mitch did a great Boon at Altamont where he led the Mormon Tabernacle Boys Choir in (to the tune of jingle bells - Mitch and I are Jewish so I suppose we felt this was OK) "Riding through the Reich in a new Mercedes Benz, killing lots of kikes, making lots of friends, Rat tat tat tat tat, mow the bastards down, Oh what fun it is to have the Nazis back in town" followed by a huge furious/inspired giant Boon face screaming, SING EUNOCHS SING. There were other not quite so tasteful Boon cartoons too, and they came from the buddies of the guys in units one and four who lived in other Foss Hill Dorms and some from Butterfield. [Butterfield, FYI, was less cool than West Co, and not just because I lived in West Co. I'm just saying.]

A woman who lived on the second floor of unit one was a Techie and she showed the cartoons to some of her buddies. and within a week, there were drawings in the staircases of the Sciences Library, all puns on Boons name with little drawings. Ahab throwing a harboon. Boon appetit and some food. Moon tan. Etc. etc. etc. The thing just took off and was all over campus. and from what I heard from the Argus reporter in the 80s, it was still going stong. [Yes - definitely still going strong by '86, when I got there.] The creative folk process at work.

We eventually got word that Boon enrolled in a program in his own country, Malaysia.

The West College crowd made sure Boon was known through a prank that in its way sums up the ingenuity and sheer silliness of our circle. One night during spring weekend, we (all I really did was sign off the invoices for the supplies and put the main pranksters in touch with the people they needed to talk to and with each other) drew a giant day glow yellow Boon on the roof of the building that housed the power plant on the main green. (It was in between North College and Fayerweather Gym, which I hear was just torn down, the northeast corner, I think of the buildings on the green.) this building happened to be where the security office was. But I knew some guys that worked security and they told me when patrols went out. And I knew guys who had no fear of climbing the roof, and others who could easily rig up the ropes to draw an absolutely perfect circle and others who could work out the exact ratios of the quintessential Boon face and others who would sketch it and paint it in, so one night between two and three some people (four, five in number? I was
sleeping) climbed the building using a ladder that was removed and then later brought back and drew and painted the giant Boon face on the roof right over security's head. the operation went off without a hitch and at the crack of noon the next day I was awoken with knocks from some of the proud pranksters who walked me out to the field with my eyes covered so I could see the giant Boon in all his
dayglo glory (fifteen feet in diameter? 20? 25?) !

Most of the people who drew Boontoons did not know about his genesis or that he was based on a real person. I don't think most people were being consciously racist when they drew Boon, although everyone involved in this story was caucasian and crude cartoon stereotypes are, of course, inherently racist. those of us who first developed the Boon legend were being intentionally offensive, of course. (That
same year a friend and I employed the new student printing press to put up two sets of placards all over campus, both of which were immediately torn down and ripped up all over campus. One said, Free Arthur Bremer, Everyone Deserves A Second Chance and the other said, Democrats '76 - Kennedy/Eagleton, You Drink, I'll Drive. You can do a little historical research to find exactly how tasteful those posters were.)

so there is the truth about the Boon Tan phenomenon. I think the Argus reporter told me that Boon was a doctor in Malaysia.


I've posted Oppyman's email in its entirety for the benefit of other Wes alums who, like me, have always sort of wondered about the legend.

And if any of you are reading this, and you have a WesCrew shirt you'd like to sell me, or you know how I can get one, PLEASE send me an email.

12 comments:

Jim said...

So for some reason (actually the reason is that I was reading on a forum I frequent about a mysterious new member that no one knew) I just Googled "Boon Tan" "Wesleyan", for the first time, and I came upon this.
I was there then. I was in the class of '77, one year ahead of Oppyman.
Oppy has to be wrong about Boon's plan to arrive in the fall of '76. I think it's got to be '74, or '75 at the latest. The legend, without Oppy's evil cartoon character, grew quietly for one or two years. I'll bet you he was supposed to be in the class of '78. I knew many of the players who spread the legend. If I'm not mistaken, the drawing on the roof was on the eve of what we then called Zonker Harris Day, which seems to have morphed into Duke Day, and then later became just plain old 4/20. No one had heard of 4/20 back then. Many substances were consumed that enhanced the appreciation of the wonder of the roof, but as I recall I had to be in a production of Medea. The giant logo was quickly painted over, but it had replaced a pretty bad but big painted legend that said "Beat Williams '46-'48" , which had been only painted over the previous fall.
There was also, briefly, a much lesser-known antithesis of Boon Tan named Noob Nat, with whom everything was cool.
I myself drew one Boon Tan strip about the travails of me and my roommate in New York after I graduated. Never did an icon of evil seem more appropriate.

ishuku said...

They're still selling WesCrew t-shirts (or, more commently these days, WesWomensCrew). I'm not really sure how one goes about procuring one of these shirts or when exactly they start selling them, but I can ask around for you...

ishuku said...

P.S. I linked to your two Boon Tan posts in my blog...

http://wesleying.blogspot.com/

plain(s)feminist said...

Jim,
In '86-'90, there were still two separate holidays, thank you very much. I don't know what weird thing happened in the '90s. How can you combine Duke and Zonker?! Totally different drugs, man. Totally.

Jim said...

Thanks for filling me in.
Now that's important info you just can't find in the alumni mag.
It's enough to make you question Bill Holder '75's editorial judgment.

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jim said...

Thanks for filling me in.
Now that's important info you just can't find in the alumni mag.
It's enough to make you question Bill Holder '75's editorial judgment.

Jim said...

Thanks for filling me in.
Now that's important info you just can't find in the alumni mag.
It's enough to make you question Bill Holder '75's editorial judgment.

LolaBelle said...

I can vouch for the fact that as of 1998, there were still two separate holidays for Uncle Duke and Zonker Harris. I don’t know what has happened since, but that isn’t that long ago is it? Crap, I guess it is.

I do have to admit my ignorance on Boon Tan. The only reason I even recognize the name is because I was linked to a Wes profile named Boon Tan on friendster.

How about the mystical seven? I was a member, but it was bogus by then.

plain(s)feminist said...

lolabelle - I wasn't a member, but the Mystical Seven was functioning in the late '80s.

(When, years later, I found out who some of the members were during those years, I was pretty unimpressed. It seemed to be a theater/film club that selected some of the most unpleasant people for membership. Just my $.02.)

Anonymous said...

the men's crew team still sells those t-shirts for $10. e-mail ccody@wesleyan.edu; he's the captain and would know how you could get one. they come in black (with white printing) and red (with black printing).

duke day and zonker harris are still separate, and separate from 4/20.

duke day is in the fall. zonker harris is in the spring, and coincides with wesfest, the weekend when accepted high school seniors are invited to campus.

Anonymous said...

In fact it was fall of '75- Mitch (and I)were freshmen that year.