NPR on Gedde Watanabe and Sixteen Candles. I am definitely among those who always winced at Watanabe’s role in Sixteen Candles. It’s amazing to think that the actor, a) does not speak Japanese, and b) had no idea how his role would have had such an impact on pop-culture and Asian-American stereotypes. I guess he was too young to realize.
It’s good to see the Giant Robot guys still doing well. I met them when they were still struggling in the late 90s when I was working for Toyota in LA.
In 1984, when Sixteen Candles came out, some Asian-American groups decried Long Duk Dong as stereotypical, racist and part of a long history of Hollywood’s offensive depictions of Asian men.
“It took me a while to understand that,” Watanabe says. “In fact, I was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and 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 situation for Asian-American men in Hollywood has improved a bit since 1984. There are more Asian Americans behind the camera, and more substantial roles, especially on TV. As far as film actors go, many people mention John Cho. He is best known for playing Harold in the comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and in an upcoming sequel.
But Asian-American actors are still trying to overcome several big issues. They want more roles that are simply American, not ethnic.
And, says Watanabe: “We really need an Asian-American star, and it hasn’t happened.” Hollywood may be importing leading men from Asia, one oft-heard argument says, but it has a ways to go with Asian Americans.