'In Character' On the Air

On Air: Long Duk Dong

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Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong.

"What's happenin', hot stuff?" Gedde Watanabe played Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong. Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Universal Pictures

Blanche DuBois. Walter Mitty. Captain Ahab. We know, it's been feeling a little like school, maybe.

But just when you thought In Character had planted itself firmly in the literary alps, NPR's Alison MacAdam comes to the rescue with a look at an '80s character who's not so much famous as infamous: Long Duk Dong, the wacky exchange student in Sixteen Candles, the debut film from high-school-movie hero John Hughes.

Ali talks to Gedde Watanabe, the actor who caught no end of grief for playing what many see as an eye-popping example of Hollywood stereotyping.

Also heard in the piece: Giant Robot co-founders Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong. Like many Asian-American kids in the '80s, they grew up being hassled by classmates who'd seen the movie — and who thought asking an Asian guy to say "Oh, sexy girlfriend!" was the height of wit.

Don't remember Long Duk Dong being that outrageous? I've got the incriminating evidence over on the story page. Enjoy ... though maybe that's not quite the right word.

Bonus info: Did you know there's an '80s cover band called Long Duk Dong? In Kentucky, no less.



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As an Asian-American man who grew up during the John Hughes film era, "16 Candles" while beloved by many, was extremely hurtful. Not only did I have to contend with being an outsider in my own country, but I became "guilty by association" of being a Long Duk Dong since he was the only image of an Asian man in American pop culture at the time. What was comedic for others became a source of contempt and ridicule for me and other Asian boys of my age. It was many years before I again embraced my heritage and overcame the doubt and, to some degree, self-loathing that characterization planted in me. "16 Candles" is clearly one of the most blatantly racist movies of contemporary teen cinema. Though depictions of what it means to be Asian in America have improved over the years, the fact that this film is aired regularly on television with the racism whitewashed as "quaint" or "just funny" is commentary in action about where Asian men still stand in this nation - disregarded from the racial discussion. It seems that Mr. Hughes could have used some time in the breakfast club to learn some empathy and understanding. But, if you've seen the movie, that club is reserved for the white kids.

Sent by Dave Butler | 7:59 PM | 3-24-2008

Nearly every character in "Sixteen Candles" is a stereotype, cartoonishly magnified. Stereotypes can be offensive if the story implies that people in the real world are really like that. But I don't think that this film is trying to say that. Perhaps it's depicting these characters as seen through the eyes of Molly Ringwald's 16-year-old Samantha?

Sent by Bill Karwin | 8:49 PM | 3-24-2008

Of all the characters in 16 Candles, the one that I loved was LDD.

Why is he the most memorable character? Not because he is the butt of so many bad stereotype, but because in spite of all that, he goes for it.

I mean, c'mon - things are pretty crappy for him. Grandpa and Grandpa are treating him like servant, the other kids and snotty brothers are laughing at him, but he goes out and has the time of his life.

He gets a girlfriend, he gets drunk, he gets punched in the face, he drives grandpa's car into the lake and he gets to talk back to them when he is hung over.

When you are 17, that's a pretty good night.

So Long Duk Dong... I salute you. You went for it when most people would have been beaten.

Sent by lyman | 9:33 PM | 3-24-2008

First of all, ditto what "lyman" said. Also, I adored LDD! I feel badly that Asian American men were hurt by the stereotype but to me he was the most lovable character in all of Hughes' films, which were littered with not just stereotypes but absolutely retarded dating morals. I mean, come on! Ditch the adorable, creative geek and go for the boring rich guy? What the heck? LDD was the saving grace of 16 Candles. Long live the Duk!

Sent by Maria | 10:16 PM | 3-24-2008

ldd created a new stereotype. there was as i remember, no asians in america i knew behaving like that (except for, occasionally... myself). if there was a stereotype of asians in america in the media at that time, depicting the stereotypical asian, they would have been overly polite, submissive, good at math or classical music. that was the role we were routed into growing up as teens in the '80s. compared to ancient chinese laundry secret bearers , kung fu qui chang monks, camera wielding tourists; a flamboyant self expressive extroverted party animal was kind of refreshing thing... to be taunted with.

Sent by kelly hirai | 11:52 PM | 3-24-2008

I went to grade school in the 50's and high school in the 60's. The Asian stereo types then were not funny. In the 50's I was somehow responsible for WWII. In the 60's, it was for flooding the market with cheap "Made in Japan" merchandise and then in the 70's for ruining the American auto industry. But I still knew that people of color were not like the Kingfish and Andy, nor like Cheech and Chong. Commercialism dictated targeting a market to increase gains. In order to reach the largest group of "people," they created are stereotypes. "People" were being bought and sold everyday. But when a country as culturally dominated by one people of color and ethnicity as America was, commercialism isolated the formation of real opinion about minorities in a way that some, if not many, minority members themselves became these stereotypes to become "commercially" viable. If you like the neighborhood you're living in and have the right income, you'll get used to it.

Sent by George Hirai | 10:38 AM | 3-25-2008

As an Asian-American man myself, I was (and am) a huge fan of LDD. As Bill points out, The Donger was one of many stereotypes in that movie and lyman nails it on the head why he was so cool.

Sure, some jerks tried to use the Donger was a way to hurt, but when they discovered that I laughed with them at LDD, that I laughed at the stereotypes, they realized it wasn't a weapon they could use. It's too bad that some allowed themselves to be hurt by such talk, but that's not a problem with the Donger, per se. There are other issues at hand there.

Sent by Paul | 3:00 PM | 3-25-2008

Yes, John Hughes create a bunch of overblown stereotypes as characters, but how many of them were based on race? Yes, this film was made over 20 years ago, but if you really look, not much has changed. The lovable Asian characters on TV and film are not Asian American at all. Hiro Nakamura is a pudgy silly Japanese kid that is only lovable because he's cute like a bear, not cute as a an Asian American man. On film, Asian Americans are background characters or are played by imported Asian stars with accents, which perpetuates the thought that Asian Americans are foreign and different and 'other'. Let's not forget Eddie Murphy was in yellowface just this past year and Robert Downey Jr will be in blackface, under the guise that it's just a character that is in blackface, not actually him. We understand full well that lots of people don't like censorship, but if you turn the tides, how would you feel? If your racial group has been constantly bombarded with oppression, stereotypes, hatred, violence, and exclusion, is asking American media to simply stop for a moment such a difficult thing to ask? Look even farther at the comments posted here, who laughs and who doesn't? I'm betting that socially conscious people of color fighting for equality are not the ones laughing. If anyone thinks that these constant media stereotypes don't hurt a group, please look at the history of every peoples of color. When it comes down to it, people that have the power to create culture get to create and release these stereotypes, which of course influence the way we think and feel about any issue. And as much as I am a fan of NPR, even they will post or read on air the comments that they see fit, whether it be a socially and racially conscious lens or not, shaping the culture released into radio media as they see fit.

Sent by D.T.H. | 4:52 PM | 3-25-2008

Long Duk Dong? A fun character? Not offensive? Lighten up?

I won't. First: the name. Long Duk Dong? That's not a real Asian name. It's a parody. Long dong! Get it?!? Highbrow comedy, Mr. Hughes. We are treated to the sound of a gong when the character appears onscreen. This is equivalent to a tribal drum soundtrack everytime a black character appears. It's safe to say that most people would find that unacceptable.

Long Duk Dong wasn't a character, he was a caricature. "Look at the goofy Asian! He doesn't know how to use a fork! It's funny!" Hell, they didn't even deem him worthy of a home country. He's just Asian...his name a vague parody of Chinese.

I'm not suggesting that John Hughes is racist. I'm sure he just wanted to make a funny movie. But that doesn't mean his character wasn't instrumental in perpetuating the pain of young Asian American men (like me) everywhere.

Sent by Steve | 4:56 PM | 3-25-2008

I agree with Dave's comments. The LDD stereotype was by far the most damaging insult to Asian-American men like myself growing up in the 80's Hughes era. Just about every day at school was a ticking timebomb awaiting explosion of name calling and taunting which 95% of the time was a LDD reference.
I believe it continued to set back the image for Asian-American men in media which we all know influences the public's perception and continues to this very day to do so. Take American Idol star William Hung, his popularity has the same rating as a LDD in such a way that humiliation of that foreign, fresh off the boat nerd characteristics of Asian men should be a shared and celebrated past time. The negative stereotype continues to be perpetuated and no thanks to Hughes for his part.
I believe today we've come leaps and bounds in improving that and I commend all of those like myself who work so hard to debunk it, but there's still a LONG way to go.

Sent by Andrew | 5:12 PM | 3-25-2008

As a white woman who was a teenager when Sixteen Candles came out, it did not occur to me that Asian men would find Long Duk Dong so offensive. What made me cringe with embarrassment was the racist grandparents who proudly explain how they get LLD to do the dishes and mow the lawn and talk to him as if he were five-years-old. So much for Cultural Exchange! Now I hear others of my generation teased Asian-Americans with the "Donger" stereotype, I am even more embarrassed. As I said then, I will say now, Get a Clue Guys! P.S. I've seen other work by Gedde Wantanbe and I think he's a fine actor. I wish him best of luck and the chance to be remembered for some other better role!

Sent by Shelley Adams Forrester | 7:20 PM | 3-25-2008

As an American of Asian decent, I can say that to all the people who are offended, pissed off, or otherwise should take a moment and just relax. Smile, be happy, life is too short to let a movie or any other form of "Entertainment" get to you. I know that some of the stereotypes out there are "pushing it" but its all in the name of fun, and ENTERTAINMENT. Let's not forget that. We all laugh at other stereotypes either out loud or within our "safe place" wherever that may be. So let's just enjoy life, look at the bright side of things, positive side.
I have to agree with the other people that said LLD was the "man" in my eyes. Got drunk, laid, talked s*** to the grandparents, I mean if that isn't the exact opposite of an stereotypic Asian, then I don't know what is. Gete Watanabe was making money, working, and putting asians on the screen. That's what we should be talking about. Putting more Asians on the screen, map whatever. Life's too short to be upset, mad, sad, whatever. we have to be so careful of what we say do and act. I mean common people! Lighten up!! I will never be upset over a film, or any other form of ENTERTAINMENT. I used to be, trust me, now its more fun and easier to let it all go.

Sent by Nippon Ichi!! | 9:41 PM | 3-25-2008

Unfortunately, a stereotype is a stereotype, which means, until there is another image that puts that one away, that is what some people will see.
Back in 1984 I don't eve think there were as many American Asians then like there are now. At least none that I knew about. I was the ONLY Asian (born) American man in my high school class back in 1984.
And yeah, I don't believe ANYTHING has been accomplished since then. John Cho played a dubagehead in Harold & Kumar. At least Kumar has gotten some decent serious roles. When John Cho or anyone like him can pull off a Russell Crowe Gladiator or a Tom Hanks Philadelphia then, maybe then, Asian American males will get their redemption.
But we all know how the game works. If it doesn't make money it's not going to be made.

Sent by Tony | 10:41 PM | 3-25-2008

While Long Duk Dong did embody many of the underdog characteristics described here, this fact does not negate the sense of entitlement and condescension with which many non-Asians regard this character. There were several endearing African American charicatures in literature and cinema before the Civil Rights Movement and racial conflicts of past decades adjusted our collective attitude toward blacks. How comfortable would we feel today if we saw a movie featuring a scrappy yet stereotypical charicature of American blackness?

This double standard is often overlooked for some reason. Just weeks ago I heard a radio program referring to chickens in Chinatown in a clearly unflattering manner. The program made no attempt to retract the statement or address it in any way. I was surprised that in 2008 something like that could just fly under the radar when a similar remark about life in "the hood" certainly would have raised eyebrows.

I would be offended and disappointed if I were to see a character like Long Duk Dong in a contemporary film, but I probably would not be surprised.

Sent by Joseph Chi | 7:15 AM | 3-26-2008

what's the deal with the "stereo-typing outrage"? i consider myself a typical American male who is agahast at most tv sitcoms. if i took offense (and i always do) at the way my demographic is usually portrayed i would never be able to watch anything. lighten up, folks. without most stupid characters and/or situations there would be no story.

Sent by Jim Nay | 1:46 PM | 3-26-2008

To this day, when I walk in public, throughout the world, people will double-take, then stare, then smile and then yell, "Oh sexy girlfriend!" ANYONE who was in Sixteen Candles became an icon of the 80's and a stereotype associated with a beloved coming of age film that will stand the test of time. Gedde is an amazing actor, writer and director. I believe his creativity and talents have not yet found their true pinnacle. I know today, what I did not know in 1983. That as a young actress in her first film, I was truly blessed to be the tall buxom gal standing next to LDD in Sixteen Candles. Like Gedde, I will forever be trying to break from a very strong and defined character. Yet, it is a character/stereotype, good or bad, that gives us moments to be who we are, actors. Love or hate the character, we are hired to do a job, interpret a writer's words and sometimes we get to make people laugh in how we do that. Stereotypes can give us a strange celebrity that others may not experience but, I must say, and I am certain Gedde would concur, it is a stereotype, I secretly enjoy carrying around!

Sent by Debbie Pollack | 9:35 PM | 3-26-2008

American Idol reject William Hung is the current version of Long Duk Dong.

Sent by Joe | 1:46 AM | 3-27-2008

Mainstream Hollywood has always, and very unapologetically, used stereotypes in its films. Racial stereotypes, demographic stereotypes. Anything is grist for Hollywood's mill as long as it is economically-viable. And unless someone -- a producer, director, writer or actor -- makes a stand, as Stanley Kramer and Sidney Poitier did in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" that change for the better will likely not occur.

I knew of Gedde Watanabe as a stage theater actor, long before "Sixteen Candles" or "Gung Ho" ever came out: He sang beautifully as an original cast member of "Pacific Overtures." But that aspect was and is completely overlooked (Even on IMBD.com) by Hollywood.

The only actor who comes to mind who plays roles with any sort of multidimensionality today is Sandra Oh, and even then her character on "Grey's Anatomy" is typical of the driven, rather humorless overachiever.

Until the studios can overcome their warped perception of Asians, we will always have the Long Duk Dongs in films.

Sent by Sterling Hada | 1:17 PM | 3-27-2008

I was a teenager when the movie "16 Candles" was out. This LDD character definitely did not do any Asian American men favors.

I do understand the character was supposed to be funny and other characters in that movie is also stereotypical. That's the main issue right there. With other white characters, there are a zillion other images of whites in positive roles in mainstream media. For Asians, characters are usually ONLY stereotypical and one dimensional. Because of that, people associate stereotypes with Asian Americans. It is now 2008 and not much has changed. It is time for America and Hollywood to wake up and realize there are more than white and black people that are Americans.

Sent by Rob | 6:48 PM | 4-11-2008