Juxtaposed next to dance videos and trends fuelled by narcissism that saturate the short-form video platform, thousands of TikTok users came across Leenda Dong, better known as @yoleendadong, on their For You page for the first time in August 2020.
Commencing her videos with a simple (and now iconic) greeting—“Hello, my friend!”—followed by a facetiously blunt criticism of a viral TikTok video, the 28-year-old soon became an international sensation. Soon, millions tuned in to the zany Vietnamese-Canadian’s daily videos, consistently donning an oversized hoodie, her hair in a messy bun, and the nose pieces of her gold oversized glasses placed just above her nostrils. Some may have thought of Dong as an overnight sensation—but she is no stranger to the Internet.
Leenda Dong has been an Internet comedy creator for almost a decade, beginning in 2012 with her YouTube channel LeendaDProductions. Producing, writing, and starring in parodies of well-known shows as well as original entertaining films mostly focused on the trials and tribulations of being a young Asian woman—a perspective that was not represented at the time in the mainstream—Dong’s audience steadily grew as millions tuned in every month to watch her comedy skits and videos. But after eight years and over 150 videos, she felt boxed in creatively and closed her YouTube channel in April 2020.
Months later, Dong reemerged as the lovable TikTok personality millions know today. A day after she reached the 15 million follower milestone on TikTok, Dong opened up to Complex about being a full-time content creator, her role in pioneering Asian-Canadian representation, and what the future holds for adored TikTok character.
I—and many young people in Vancouver at the time—grew up watching your content on YouTube. Before you started your YouTube channel in 2012, where were you going to consume media?
A lot [of movies] from Blockbuster. Or like, I don’t know if it was a Canadian thing, but like AsianAve and Vancouver Xchange—it was like Tumblr, and I was consuming media from there. That’s what I grew up with. On TV, Lucy Liu was someone I really looked up to because she was kind of the only Asian girl back then in Hollywood. Then when YouTube started, with Ryan Higa, KevJumba, of course Wong Foo, and Michelle Phan, was when I started to see all of these Asian faces—and I was like, This is so cool, I want to do this too! They were definitely pioneers for a lot of Asian people that create content right now.
Your content spotlights the Asian-Canadian perspective and identity, which has been long absent in the mainstream. Instead, Asian people have often been fetishized or portrayed as timid and submissive. How was your upbringing informed by these stereotypes, and how did you begin to satirize and defy these stereotypes through your work?
Growing up, [Asian people] were always the side character or the character that just didn’t really talk or was extremely awkward. I’m pretty awkward, too—but it was different. I grew up in an Asian community in Vancouver, and everyone is very different. I’m Vietnamese, and when you go to a wedding, everyone’s really loud—we party—and I love that. And when I would go to K-Town, we had some party people too in K-Town. There are different types of Asian people everywhere, and in the Western media they would only portray us in a very certain way—but we’re not all like that. Yes, some of us are shy and timid—that’s OK, sometimes we like to listen more than we actually speak. But for me, that’s why I really wanted to change that narrative because we’re not all like that. How about have an Asian guy as the lead, or spotlight a universal story not always showing stereotypes? We have these stories too, and I really wanted to share them on my channel.
“There are different types of Asian people everywhere, and in the Western media they would only portray us in a very certain way—but we’re not all like that.”
When you started to embark on your own career as a content creator, what direction did you want to go with your comedy and your videos?
The narrative set by a lot of the Asian male comedy creators was their voice and their narrative, but there was never a voice for Asian female comedy creators. So I really wanted to be that person to show and share our stories of the things we do. I always try to include our cultures—like girls drinking bubble tea or how we talk about guys and the lifestyle that we had. I just really wanted to be that voice because there wasn’t really like a voice for us at that time.
You said in your departure video on your YouTube channel that you felt that your longstanding reputation on that channel boxed you in creatively. Have you shaken off those limitations through your TikTok character and everything else you’re working on today?
When I started on YouTube, I definitely feel like everyone saw me in a certain way and it kind of stayed. I’m extremely silly; if you’ve seen my TikTok, that’s how I am as a person. I really wanted to break out and show people more of me, but I felt like if I started doing that on YouTube people would be like, “That’s not her,” when it has always been me. So when I transitioned to TikTok, the character I created was kind of like my alter ego. That character is who I am as a person; the only thing that is different is that I have an accent. With the whole accent thing, it was inspired by people that I grew up with, and how they were very sassy but also very positive and outspoken, and they had an accent. At the end of the day, having an accent just means that you’re bilingual, which is amazing. So yeah, I just wanted to be someone on TikTok who can be fun and outspoken and just says what she wants, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.
I scrolled all the way down to the bottom of your TikTok account and in the beginning you were talking and presenting similarly to as you were on your YouTube. Months later, you eventually made the transition to only creating content under the character many know you for today. What led to that decision?
Honestly, I enjoy being her. She just says what she wants, her hair is always messy, she’s in sweatpants and hoodies every day. She’s just like—it is what it is—you know? And that’s what I’ve always wanted to be. I felt like on other platforms like Instagram and YouTube, I had to always look and present a certain way. On TikTok, the person that I show is just a very genuine and realistic version of how I am and how we all are. I think that everyone at the end of the day, when we’re at home in our beds, is in sweatpants chilling with no makeup on. You know, we’re just chilling—and that’s how we are. I just wanted to show that because I feel like online sometimes it’s always glamorized when realistically we’re not all like that.
You probably know how that feels more than most people because your job for almost a decade was doing yourself up and playing characters on the Internet—when in reality that is only a fragment of who you are. Have you struggled with that?
Kind of. Like always showing like that side of me as a highlight reel?
Yeah, for sure. I kind of got into that lifestyle of always showing the highlights of my life and always having to present myself and dress up and all that stuff. Sometimes it’s fun, you know, like going to events and stuff is super fun. But for me, I just couldn’t do it all the time because I wasn’t really like that as a person.
You come up with some hilarious concepts for your TikTok videos. One of my favourite videos of yours is of you dressing up in a disguise to stalk your ex while he’s golfing. What is your creative process when you’re coming up with these ideas?
A lot of the time it’s through conversations with my friends. We are in a WhatsApp group and we talk all the time. We also send each other memes on Instagram, so inspiration is pulled from there. My videos are all very relatable experiences—like when me and my friends talk, we talk about the things that I talk about [on TikTok]. We’re just like, “What is so and so doing? How about we just dress up and see where they are?” Like, I honestly would totally want to do what I did in that video in real life! Maybe when the pandemic is over I would totally have my friends dress up undercover so we can stalk our crush, that would be fun. A lot of ideas are pulled from other means as well—a lot of things inspire me.
How much has content creation on social media changed since you started?
It’s so different. Before on YouTube, there were only a couple of Asian people creating content. On TikTok, everyone is creating content now, which is great. I think everyone is more comfortable with creating content now, and there are a variety of categories like cooking, food, beauty, lifestyle, comedy. I definitely see a lot more Asian faces which is awesome to see. It’s really changing the narrative—that we’re not all super timid or stuck in a box. It’s really cool seeing all of these new creators.
There are over 15 million members of your ‘Phuc Bich Family’ on TikTok. What is it like being the figurehead of a fanbase?
I love interacting with people. My TikTok family—they’re so funny, sometimes I’m reading comments and I’m like laughing out loud. They’re always checking up on me, they always ask me how I am and how my day is. I think a lot of [creators] kind of have it one-sided, where they put out content but they don’t interact with their fans too much. For me, I like interacting. I like to know who they are—I actually stalk their profiles sometimes just to see who is following me and what kind of relationship we have. [My fanbase] is more like a family and that’s what I’ve always wanted to have.
What are some things people may not know about having a full-time Internet career?
I think a lot of people think like—OK, she posts two videos and that’s it. But my mind is running for 12 hours every single day. As a content creator, you’re constantly thinking all the time. And of course, here and there, there’s always backlash from people perceiving something the wrong way. Even if I didn’t mean to come off like that, or say something like that, that’s something that people don’t understand. With friends and family, they personally know where I’m coming from and that my heart is always in a good place, but sometimes people online will say why did she do that or say that in this way when I wasn’t trying to do that at all. A lot of people don’t understand that [impacts my] mental health. [My content] definitely gets picked apart on social media, but I’m lucky that my TikTok family has my back and they’re always rooting for me. That makes me feel a lot better.
With 15 million followers on TikTok under your belt, what is next for you and your TikTok character?
I’ve had a lot of meetings with people and companies who have been really interested in the longevity of my TikTok character. So, I will potentially be putting my character into scripted content, as in on a show on TV or in a movie. So that’s kind of like in the works, we’ll see. I’ve always wanted to be an actress, so that’s kind of in the works as well—that’s like the dream.