There are few Asian American movie characters as cringe-worthy yet cemented in our cultural consciousness as Long Duk Dong, portrayed by Gedde Watanabe in the 1984 John Hughes film “Sixteen Candles.”
From his first on-screen moment, Dong’s Asian identity is caricatured and played up for laughs, with everything from his name and nerdy middle part to his sexual ineptitude contributing to the joke. Watching today, it seems unbelievable that a literal gong sound plays every time he appears or has a revelation.
The “Chinaman,” as his American host family calls him, is painted as lustful but also sexually unappealing, and is contrasted against his towering love interest, Marlene the “Lumberjack,” in ways that make him appear weak and emasculated. When it seems like he may be dead lying face-down in their front yard, his host family’s biggest concern is that if so, they won’t make it to their social event.
Looking back years later, Watanabe said that although he still finds Dong funny, he was perhaps “naive” about the character’s portrayal. “I was making people laugh. I didn’t realize how it was going to affect people,” he said.