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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, the latest in NPR series In Character. It's about fictional characters who left a mark on American culture. This character's mark could be thought of as more of a stain.

(Soundbite of movie "Sixteen Candles")

Mr. GEDDE WATANABE (Actor): (As Long Duk Dong) What's happening, hot stuff?

That is Long Duk Dong as he makes his appearance in the popular 1984 comedy, "Sixteen Candles." Long Duk Dong is a foreign exchange student from some unidentified Asian country. Even though he doesn't have much screen time, he made a big impact. We're taking a look at him today because to some viewers Long Duk Dong represents one of the most offensive Asian stereotypes Hollywood ever gave America.

NPR's Alison MacAdam reports.

ALISON MacADAM: In "Sixteen Candles," you get to know Long Duk Dong at an American family's dinner table.

(Soundbite of movie "Sixteen Candles")

Mr. WATANABE: (As Long Duk Dong) Very clever dinner, appetizing food fitting neatly into interesting round pie.

MacADAM: It's a kitsch. Long Duk Dong uses a fork and spoon as chopsticks. His hair is parted in with what we called a butt-cut in the '80s - straight down the middle. He is not a cool kid. But he proceeds to have the night of his life.

(Soundbite of music)

MacADAM: He goes to a high school dance, gets a girlfriend, becomes very drunk and finds himself in a tree.

(Soundbite of movie "Sixteen Candles")

Mr. WATANABE: (As Long Duk Dong) Oh, sexy girlfriend. Banzai.

(Soundbite of music)

MacADAM: And the night continued. By morning, Long Duk Dong is splayed out in the front yard of the home where he was staying.

(Soundbite of movie "Sixteen Candles")

Mr. WATANABE: (As Long Duk Dong) Oh, no more yankie my wankie. The Donger need food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAX SHOWALTER (Actor): (As Grandpa Fred) He's drunk as a skunk.

Mr. EDWARD ANDREWS (Actor): (As Howard Baker) Why don't you just shut up, Fred. Shut up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDREWS: (As Howard Baker) Dong, where is my automobile?

Mr. WATANABE: (As Long Duk Dong) Automobile?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MacADAM: And those are the greatest hits of the Donger. No more yanky my wanky, oh, sexy girlfriend, what's happening, hot stuff? In the '80s, teens quoted Long Duk Dong endlessly. He became one of the most enduring characters in those high school comedies.

Long Duk Dong is a creation of writer and director John Hughes. He rarely gives interviews and he made no exception for us. Hughes' films embodied a hyper image of a suburban high school near you - "The Breakfast Club," "Pretty in Pink," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," geeks, jocks, cheerleaders, and kids desperate to penetrate the popular crowd.

In real American schools, Long Duk Dong gave the mean kids new material.

Mr. ERIC NAKAMURA (Publisher and Editor, Giant Robot Magazine): Every single Asian dude who went to high school or junior high during the era of John Hughes movies was called Donger.

MacADAM: That's Eric Nakamura. He and Martin Wong co-founded the magazine Giant Robot, which covers Asian and Asian American pop culture.

Mr. NAKAMURA: I mean, if you're being called Long Duk Dong, you're comic relief amongst a sea of people unlike you. And you're also being portrayed as a non-Asian American person. You're being portrayed as a guy who just came off a boat and who's out of control. It's like every bad stereotype possible loaded into one character.

Just the gong that, you know, appears behind them magically every time he's on the screen, gong, you know, that's awful.

(Soundbite of a gong clanging)

MacADAM: Nakamura and Wong said that before the Donger came along, they got called Bruce Lee at school, which was okay. At least he could do martial arts and kick ass.

"Sixteen Candles" stole even that limited pleasure, and Asian American guys focused their frustration on the actor who played Long Duk Dong. After all, he was one of them, born in the USA.

Mr. NAKAMURA: I mean, I feel bad for the guy in the end because he's had to live with the fact that all these Asian American men hate him.

Mr. MARTIN WONG (Co-founder, Giant Robot Magazine): Yeah. It's baggage for him, just like it's baggage for us.

Mr. WATANABE: My name is Gedde Watanabe, actor, but probably, most people know me as Long Duk Dong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATANABE: It's just still hard for me to say.

MacADAM: Since "Sixteen Candles," Gedde Watanabe has developed a pretty long resume of TV, movie, theater and voice work. He played Nurse Yosh on "E.R." Now he's filming a thriller in New Mexico. Even there, he says, he was recognized at a Wal-Mart as Long Duk Dong.

Mr. WATANABE: People still come up to me to this day and quote my lines -what's happening, hot stuff?, sexy girlfriend - and now, I think, I - you can get on ringtones.

MacADAM: Gedde Watanabe is 52 now. He grew up in a Japanese American family in Ogden, Utah. His parents had settled there after his mother was forced to live in an internment camp during World War II. Watanabe left Utah at 18 to become a performer. "Sixteen Candles" was his first big break in Hollywood.

Mr. WATANABE: It was a great experience because I was making people laugh. I didn't realize how it's going to affect people or anything like that, no. And of course, I was a bit naive about it, too.

MacADAM: In 1984, when "Sixteen Candles" came out, Asian American groups labeled Long Duk Dong stereotypical and racist, and part of a long history of Hollywood's offensive depictions of Asian men.

Mr. WATANABE: I totally understood that, but it took me a while to understand that. In fact, I think I was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I was accosted by a couple of women who were just really irate and angry. How could you do a role like this? Do you realize what you've done? And oh, I got it all, sorts of, oddball things from it. But it's funny, too. At the same time, I laughed at the character. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATANABE: I mean, so it's an odd animal.

MacADAM: It is an odd thing, that line between comedy and offense. The guys from Giant Robot magazine, Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong, clearly saw some humor in Long Duk Dong, too.

Mr. NAKAMURA: Remember the - he was in the tree wearing a whole Banzai outfit?

Mr. WONG: Yeah, it was like that.

Mr. NAKAMURA: And he was like, oh, sexy girlfriend - and he jumped down on Jake. So it was, like…

Mr. WONG: Right.

Mr. NAKAMURA: …here he is like this Asian guy buffoon and he jumps on the stud, and he thinks that that's his girlfriend. I totally don't understand that.

MacADAM: There is a lot left to understand about roles for Asian American men in Hollywood. Things have gotten a bit better since 1984. There are more Asian Americans behind the camera and some more substantial roles especially on TV. As far as actors in film, a lot of people mention John Cho. He's best known for playing Harold in the comedy "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," and in an upcoming sequel.

There appear to be a couple of big issues Asian American actors are still trying to overcome. They want more roles that are simply American, not ethnic. And as Gedde Watanabe says, Hollywood is importing lead actors from Asia, but it has a ways to go with Asian Americans.

Mr. WATANABE: We really need an Asian American star, and it hasn't happened.

MacADAM: As for Long Duk Dong, he may live on as more than a stereotype.

Mr. SHAN JUSTICE (Member, Long Duk Dong Band): Hi, my name is Shan Justice from the '80s cover band Long Duk Dong.

(Soundbite of song "Don't You Forget About Me")

Mr. JUSTICE: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey, hey.

MacADAM: Just about every weekend, Long Duk Dong draws hundreds of fans to his gigs at an Irish pub in Lexington, Kentucky.

Mr. JUSTICE: The people that have seen the movie always get it and will come back with one of the quotes like, hey, sexy girlfriend or something like that. So it's odd that a character that's not a primary character in a film like that would have so much notability, but that one certainly did.

MacADAM: More than 20 years after "Sixteen Candles" came out, people are still laughing and cringing at Long Duk Dong.

Alison MacAdam, NPR News.

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