In Character, an ongoing examination of some of American pop culture's most indelible characters, spoke with Japanese American actor Gedde Watanabe whose portrayal of one the most recognizable stereotypical Asian roles (broken English! a bowl hair cut!) not only traumatized young Asian American men in the 80s but has proved to be a burden on the actor himself. Despite spending the last twenty-some years working in film, theatre, and television, Watanabe is still best known for his role as the Donger. He has also incurred the wrath of many Asian Americans who have criticized him for taking on the role in the first place.
"It took me a while to understand that," Watanabe says. "…I was accosted a couple of times by a couple of women who were just really irate and angry. They asked, 'How could you do a role like that?' But it's funny, too, because at the same time I laugh at the character. It's an odd animal."
The article also features quotes from Giant Robot
magazine founders Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong, who describe the hit to collective Asian American cultural pride during the height of the film's popularity.
Wong says, "If you're being called Long Duk Dong, you're comic relief amongst a sea of people unlike you." Nakamura explains, "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."
Nakamura acknowledges the burden Watanabe has carried as an actor from the enduring image of Long Duk Dong. Of the state of Asian American actors, Watanabe says, "We really need an Asian-American star, and it hasn't happened."
Personally, I don't think Watanabe should be vilified for his portrayal of the Donger. If we're considering the context of the 1980s and the opportunities available to actors of color at the time, I doubt that it was very easy for him or other Asian American actors to choose between getting work and performing as a stereotype. Even today, it's still a difficult choice.
In a 2007 New York Magazine
article, Indian American actor Kal Penn said this of his role as a terrorist on Fox's 24: “I have a huge political problem with the role. It was essentially accepting a form of racial profiling. I think it’s repulsive. But it was the first time I had a chance to blow stuff up and take a family hostage. As an actor, why shouldn’t I have that opportunity? Because I’m brown and I should be scared about the connection between media images and people’s thought processes?"
If it hadn’t been Watanabe playing Long Duk Dong, it would have been another Asian American actor needing a role. And regardless of who played the Donger, nothing changes the fact that the role existed in the first place. So the question is less, “How could Gedde Watanabe do a role like that?” and more, “How could John Hughes create a role like that?”
This blog entry is graciously sponsored by Toyota Matrix, check out
their website devoted to the best in Asian American film.