Hong Kong Phooey! He's Your Hero Too!
We’re in the city, high above a ticker-tape parade. Who’s the parade for? A super-hero riding in the back of a car. From behind, you can tell he’s got really long ears, with more fur on them than than most people's ears have. Who is this super-hero? It sure ain’t Sarge (or Sarge’s hero, Super Sergeant). It’s not Rosemary, the telephone operator with the big glasses and impossibly short skirt. And no, I know what you’re thinking, but it isn’t Spot, the clever cat who gets a lot of things done in the real world. No, indeed. This super-hero is Penry, the mild-mannered janitor, who is also secretly Hong Kong Phooey, Number One Super Guy.
StartFragment Now, I’m not here to start a riot, but I will if I have to, because what I’m about to say needs saying: Hong Kong Phooey isn’t just the most-famous and well-loved hero of the unnamed city where he cleans up the streets; Hong Kong Phooey is the greatest super-hero of all time, anywhere. Not only is Hong Kong Phooey a practical role-model for human perfection, he also plays that part while remaining easier to identify with than the best-known super-heroes our culture has produced. He’s the hero we’d most want to be like, and he’s the hero we’re already the most like. EndFragment
So here comes Superman. He's an impressive hero, of course. Lots of powers, does a lot for humanity, but he’ll always be a stranger to our everyday problems. His only attempt to relate to regular people, Clark Kent, is so lame he shouldn't even try. It's no good, Clark. We know you wrote that last Daily Planet blog post in ten seconds flat, and made it only 80% as good as the latest from Lois Lane on purpose. Penry, our hero janitor, doesn’t get any more competent when he turns into Hong Kong Phooey; he’s all Clark Kent, for real, all the time.
Hold on… Batman’s basically the same guy whether he’s got the mask on or not, right? True, he acts like a tough, brooding loner millionaire no matter what the situation; but is he like us? Would Batman wear his most-chill Bruce Wayne playboy robe out in the street to fight crime? Would he help an old lady across the street and tell her to have a nice day? If not, ask yourself: is he really even a hero at all? Batman's following some weird, personal rich guy path- he doesn’t get us.
Wait! What about Spider-man? The whole world’s always talking about how normal he is. Sure, he’s totally normal, just your average American boy bit by a radioactive spider going around doing normal teenage boy stuff like taking photos for the newspaper and dating attractive redheads. 100% average. A guy like that does okay when the villains fly around or have too many arms, but what if you've got a real problem, like some crook stealing all the TVs in town? Or all the candy? Or all the cats, for cryin' out loud? Where's your Spider-Man now? That's what I thought; he's got more "important" work to do.
Penry works as a janitor at the police station (nobody's ever going to call that a glamourous job), and every day he’s screwing up at work: dropping Sarge’s important papers all over the floor, vacuuming up Sarge’s important papers, letting the wind blow all Sarge’s important papers out the window…
Now think about your own situation: isn't every day at your job slightly different in a not quite amusing way? Don’t they make you feel like… a dog? Yup, Penry is just like you. Also just like you, nobody ever notices that Penry’s a dog, or if they do, they never say anything.
But Penry's not an ordinary dog-- he's a hero. He makes better decisions than we do. Instead of a burger, a beer, or a pillowtop mattress (that we ever see), he channels his frustrations into positive action. When Rosemary gets the call that there’s evil afoot, he’s ready: behind the soda machine, into the filing cabinet, past the ironing board, bouncing off the couch with a big springs sticking out, and finally (with Spot by his side) driving his Eastern-styled multi-vehicle out of the dumpster as the greatest masked crime-fighter of all time!
As Hong Kong Phooey, our hero has three basic tools in his fight against crime: the Phooeymobile, The Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu, and his faithful sidekick, Spot. Besides the robe and the mask, these are the only things that distinguish Penry from Hong Kong Phooey (and ultimately, Hong Kong Phooey from us).
The Phooeymobile is the Flintstones-inspired car Hong Kong Phooey drives out of the dumpster as he heads into action, but it’s not just a car. When he bangs his gong, the Phooeymobile can turn into any sort of vehicle, from a helicopter to a speedboat. How does it work? Mysticism? Mass hypnotism? It's not that logical. Like Hong Kong Phooey’s whole career, the Phooeymobile seems to run on straight-up will-power.
The Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu is a correspondence course Penry’s been taking, but hasn't gotten very far into yet. In the meantime, he uses it like Kung Fu Google to come up with the Hip-Hop Chip-Chop or the Ting-Tong Tornado right when he’s in the middle of a tight spot. If he can’t find what he’s looking for and throws the book away, it always lands in a way that solves his problem, and that's pretty handy, too.
Which brings us to Spot, the striped cat, Penry’s best friend and greatest asset. Spot is always getting Hong Kong Phooey out of trouble- that's his job on the show. But Spot isn't motivated to fight crime, he's just there to help Penry. If Penry wasn’t there to say “Come on, Spot!,” when he needed him, Spot would still be hanging around the police station trying to catch mice, and no one would ever figure out who's been stealing all the equipment from the ski resort. On the other hand, if Spot wasn’t around, you can bet Hong Kong Phooey would still be doing the exact same thing (as soon as he got out of the filing cabinet). Spot is important, maybe even crucial to Phooey’s success, but he’s not the hero.
If you’ve read Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death (and you probably have), then you'll agree that any person’s principal goal, the way any of us know we’ve succeeded in life, is when you look in the mirror and see your own hero reflected back. Hong Kong Phooey shows us exactly how this can work in practical terms, and it's the defining aspect of his philosophy: even as his accomplishments stack up towards the sky, he shows no interest in the glory of it all. He's a brilliant hero doing what brilliant heroes do, but he'd never allow that being a brilliant hero makes him special (of course, because we can see behind the scenes, we know this is true). This magical combination of strong achievement with an utter lack of pretense makes Hong Kong Phooey the cartoon equivalent of 70's punk rock: he pursues his vocation at face-value with enthusiasm, assumes that’s going to be enough, and turns out to be absolutely right.
When Hong Kong Phooey looks in the mirror, he sees what the people of his town see: a blindingly handsome man, an adept strategist, and a master of kung-fu: a hero. The fact that he’s really a short, clumsy dog whose cat gets him out of every jam never enters his own picture, and why should it? To be more realistic? Hong Kong Phooey has a way of looking at the world that works for him, and because he’s so humble about it, it works for us, too. Who wouldn’t want to be Hong Kong Phooey?
Hong Kong Phooey is a master of the power of belief. He succeeds because he never doubts his success. It's a stroke of genius anyone can imitate: If you want to do something, or become something, all you need to do is believe that you can, make it a part of your identity, and go for it. Even if your fear that you’re a bumbling oaf turns out to be true, things can still turn out right. People (or striped cats) will show up to help you. History is full of heroes who followed this exact strategy, and even more full of frustrated nobodys who never achieved anything because they were too scared to try.
More than any other super-hero, Hong Kong Phooey shows us that success has a lot more to do with showing up than it does with talent, or even competence. How can one mild-mannered dog janitor inspire so many with so little? There's only one answer to that question: that's just who he is.
© 2017 Eric Henderson