Sixteen Candles' Gedde Watanabe On Why He Wasn’t Offended By Stereotypical Role As Long Duk Dong

Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles
(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Japanese-American actor Gedde Watanabe had a prominent role in one of the best high school movies of all time: Sixteen Candles. He made his film debut playing Long Duk Dong, who is a Chinese foreign exchange student living with grandparents of Molly Ringwald's Sam. While Long Duk Dong is very much a stereotype, Watanabe says he wasn’t offended playing the character in part because in part of the scarcity of roles that were available for Asian actors at the time.

If you were to rewatch Sixteen Candles 40 years later, there are a number of elements that haven’t aged well. Significant in this discussion is the presence of Long Duk Dong, who inspires the sound of a gong whenever his name is mentioned or he enters a scene. With the American actor donning a thick Chinese accent for the role, the character also clumsily makes attempts to say American catchphrases. He's constantly laughed at and ordered around by Sam’s grandparents who are real jerks in the John Hughes movie

Despite the character of Long Duk Dong being an offensive stereotype in retrospect, Gedde Watanabe has told People that he didn’t feel offended when he took the role. The actor explains,

Frankly I was like, this is a good job, and I'm going to get paid more doing one week in this movie that I did for all the years I was in the theater... It didn't really occur to me that it was a stereotype, because there wasn't really anything out there for Asian actors at the time. It was just so scarce. So I didn't think it was stereotypical or racist. Isn't that weird?

Vietnamese-born Chinese-American actor Ke Huy Quan could relate to Gedde Watanabe's struggles finding strong Asian roles in the ‘80s. After all, that’s why The Goonies actor stepped away from acting for so long, as he was only getting offered stereotypical characters. Clearly, filmmakers weren’t aware during this time of how to write parts for Asian actors, and based on Watanabe’s comments, it meant performers becoming blind to red flags.

Gedde Watanabe may not have been offended playing Long Duk Dong, but it doesn’t mean certain stereotypes of the Sixteen Candles character escaped him. He added,

I remember the movie using the word 'Chinaman,' and even then I was like, ‘Oh, that's not great.' But you also have to remember in that period of time, people still had to be educated about parameters, what the alarm bells were when it came to being offensive.

On the other hand, Gedde Watanabe said there were some upsides to playing Long Duk Dong. He said John Hughes almost went against stereotypes by having him in a relationship with an athletic teen girl he meets at the school dance. Watanabe also finds it a positive that his Sixten Candles character is now talked about in Asian studies classes and other conversations about the need for change regarding Asian film representation. 

Recently, there have been some great strides forward for the the AAPI community in Hollywood, like the 2023 Oscars seeing Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan win major acting awards and their movie Everything Everywhere All At Once winning Best Picture. There have also been many successful Asian-cast shows as part of your streaming schedule like Shogun, Squid Game, Beef and more.

When Gedde Watanabe looks back on playing the stereotypical role of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, he doesn't recall being offended playing the part, but he is happy that it has led to conversations today about better on-screen representation for the Asian community. You can watch him in the classic teen comedy movie with an Amazon Prime subscription.

Carly Levy
Entertainment Writer

Just your average South Floridian cinephile who believes the pen is mightier than the sword.