Long Duk Dong, played by Gedde Watanabe, makes his first appearance in “Sixteen Candles” upside down. He dangles from a top bunk, waggling his eyebrows at the female protagonist and attempting conversational English: “What’s happenin’, hot stuff?”
Oriental tropes in cinema are nothing new. For years, Asian Americans have battled long-standing traditions of yellowface, the model minority myth, and white patriarchy. Long Duk Dong was the brainchild of writer-director John Hughes, whose iconic teen films—”The Breakfast Club”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Pretty in Pink”—glorified the Hollywood equivalent image of your local suburban high school. These environments were flooded with a standard character set of jocks, geeks, cheerleaders, and kids desperate to be accepted within a popular crowd.
Dong, however, is every horribly quintessential Asian stereotype rolled into one. At the average dinner table, he’s mystified by the foods depicted as foreign to him. Confronted with a fork and spoon, he uses them like chopsticks. Oh, and by the way—his every entrance is accompanied by the sound of a gong.
Asian men have been fighting this on-screen stereotype for years: the socially inept mute, or the lecherous but sexually inept loser. Dong became the new Asian American cliché for his generation, a title that came with real life implications.
“Asian Americans who grew up in the second half of the 1980s complained that they were called ‘Donkers’ in junior and high schools,” Grace Ji-Sun Kim, a researcher at Georgetown University, wrote in the book Theological Reflections on ‘Gangnam Style.’ “They were taunted with quotes of Dong’s stilted English lines, such as … ‘Oh, sexy girlfriend.’ ”
Characters reminiscent of Dong’s also frequently fight the minifying consequences of emasculating masculinity. Dong’s love interest, known condescendingly as “Lumberjack,” looms over him and rides an exercise bike with him on her lap. Switching gender roles for the purpose of comedic relief feminizes Asian men while suggesting that alternative gender and sexuality is aberrant.
While there is nothing wrong with swapping gender roles, on or off-screen, it’s the intent behind it that makes Dong’s presentation so cringe-worthy. Dong’s emphasized femininity makes him weak, and audiences are supposed to laugh at this.
Perhaps the most interesting question is why actor Gedde Watanabe even agreed to play this role in the first place. Ultimately, though, “Sixteen Candles” does prompt careful deliberation of the fine line between comedy and offensiveness.
In a 2014 interview with Vulture, Watanabe revealed his envisioned future for his old character, which is likely much more fulfilling that what filmmakers had in mind. “[Dong] has eight or nine kids, I would imagine… Some of his kids are in the arts, one in a rock band probably, some are teachers, a few doctors. I think he owns restaurants. They’re kinda famous. And he’s kinda well known for it. And he’s about to make a bid for the L.A. Clippers,” Watanabe said.
It’s nice to think that, after almost half a century, Long Duk Dong was able to adopt the multi-dimensional characterization he has always deserved.