Dr. Kerry Jang, Psychiatry Professor, City Councillor
Kerry Jang opened the door to his home at the corner of Sixteenth and Nootka and apologized for the mess. Family portraits on the bookshelf, a flat screen television in the corner, and a plate of cookies on the coffee table. Neat as a pin. Shutters broke the glare of the sun on the window that overlooked the yard with the Vision Vancouver Kerry Jang for City Council poster impaled in the ground. Up the street, for as far as the eye could see, Vancouver-specials lined the road. Some of his neighbours had overextended to buy big houses and the foreclosures taking place worried him, Jang said.
“This neighborhood has some interesting challenges,” he said, and settled down on the couch in the living room.
Jang’s good humour and easy laugh punctuated the conversation, why he decided to run for office, his accomplishments as an academic and community leader, his days as a child in the same schools his kids, Nicholas, 12, and Rachel, 10, had gone off to that morning.
Renfrew-Collingwood, neighborhood where Jang grew up, may have its share of grow ops and crime, but it doesn’t occur to the researcher to leave. Instead, he appeared to relish the area’s character and challenges, and to be solidly rooted in its history and streets.
“We get people coming to the fun palaces on Kingsway and we get folks from the valley coming this way,” he said. “They congregate around here. It's quiet and it's a good place to do drug dealing. To the side of my house it's dark at night and you can guarantee there’s a hand-off of drugs going on there at times. We found out the hoodlums were mistaking our place for the house across the street when our place was almost invaded. There was a guy jimmying the lock.” Jang managed to run the burglar off and life went on. When asked if the kids were afraid after this, Jang shook his head. “They’re kind of tough east end kids. They have street smarts. We don't protect our kids from seeing things.” Although people tell him he should move closer to UBC where he works, he doesn’t budge. They say, ‘you’re a doctor.” Jang laughed and shrugged. “This is where I come from.”
Jang, the oldest of three siblings, grew up on Windermere and 22nd. Jang's family history, according to the doctor, goes like this: His grandparents emigrated from China at the turn of the century. On his father’s side they came as merchants to sell goods in Canada. His grandfather made a fortune, but lost everything in the Great Depression. His grandfather had three wives. Jang’s grandmother was the “third mother.” His grandfather bore twenty-one children, producing a seemingly infinite slew of Jangs in Vancouver, first cousins, second cousins, some of whom Jang said he doesn’t even know. His mother’s father had been a pig farmer in China but in Vancouver worked as a tailor. Jang’s father, Leslie, worked as a plumber for the Vancouver School Board for most of his career and also worked in the construction industry. He worked on some of the largest projects in the Lower Mainland such as the Vancouver Aquarium and Simon Fraser University. “He spent over 20 years with the Vancouver School Board making sure the bathrooms worked and water flowed throughout Vancouver schools,” Jang said. His mother taught Chinese cooking for the Vancouver School Board for years, but spent most of her career working for the provincial court.
“It was a big deal for my parents to get jobs like they had, because there was so much prejudice at the time,” Jang said. “They wanted us kids to be as non- Chinese as possible, because it had been a liability for them.” A “go figure” expression crossed Jang’s face. “Now it's cool to be Chinese again, but my Chinese is poor. I get criticized for having bad Chinese.” He opened his hands as if to say what can you do. “We got stuck in the lost generation."
Jang attended Renfrew Elementary school and Windermere High School, but “barely got through and hated every minute of it. In the afternoons, he worked at a grocery store in Chinatown at the corner of Jackson and Powell where the owner put the store clerks in charge of dealing out punishment to shoplifters. “We called the shoplifters ‘rummies,’ because they were drunks; these five drunks, who would come in the store and steal," Jang recalled. "The boss would tell me to catch the guy and to beat him up. Me and the other guys who worked in the store were supposed to get these rummies out of the store and rough them up.” Jang paused. “I couldn’t do it. Finally, I caught one of these guys, and I said, ‘You come in here every day, and you steal. What’s wrong with you?’ ‘I’m hungry,’ he said. And I said, ‘Oh shit.’” Jang’s eyes welled up with tears. He collected himself and continued. “After that, I slipped them food.”
“We used to sell Chinese cooking wine. These street guys would always buy that. They would come in on Welfare Day and buy a whole case of the stuff, because it was just a dollar a bottle. I remember the cruelty one of the bosses showed when he caught one of the guys stealing. One of the rummies stole a bottle of soy sauce thinking it was wine and the boss made him drink it. He made him drink an entire bottle of soy sauce. It caused such a ruckus they moved me to Cambie and Sixteenth to a big store there to get me out of the way. If the store wasn’t making money the managers would get mad. They’d threaten the workers. They’d line them up and say, ‘I’m going to send you back to China.’ I felt this was wrong.
With this education in injustice, Jang turned his attention to psychology in an attempt to answer some of the questions these situations had raised, he said. “I wanted to understand why people do things. Were there patterns to the circumstances of how people got to where they were? Were there ways to intervene and stop these patterns?”
He went to Langara College and worked to get his grades up so he could get into SFU. At SFU, he did a masters in psychology under the tutelage of Charles Crawford, a legally blind, albino professor whom, he said, made learning interesting. “He’s probably one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. He could figure stuff out and he talked plainly and bluntly to me. He had a real influence on which way I went.”
He did his PhD at the University of Western Ontario, first working with Professor J. Phillipe Rushton. But he didn’t stay with Rushton long. “He was the guy who had that theory about racial differences and IQ and penis length,” Jang recalled. “He said to me I was going to work on data on identical twins and fraternal twins. I had no idea what it was all about. I go to work for this guy and he has all these theories on how to account for racial differences. There were protests by students at Western. They were banging on doors, protesting him and his theories. There weren’t many Chinese students at Western and his theory was that Asians are the smartest people on earth. I didn’t believe it, because, mathematically, if you look at IQ scores there’s so much overlap, there’s no difference. He was wrong. He was censured by the university and I skeedaddled out of his lab within three months. What that taught me was the power of activism. People challenged him. They shut him down. I learned you can take on the big guy in a respectful way. It opened up a wide range of options.”
He went on to do post doctoral studies at UBC and there began his seminal research on the genetic differences of twins as well as the genetics of mental illness. He volunteered as an activity worker with the Canadian Mental Health Association, a relationship he continued as a board member in the 1980s. In 2002 he joined the Collingwood Neighbourhood House, where he worked to educate parents on the risks kids at local schools face from the drug and sex trades. He worked to restore funding for several community support and harm prevention programs lost to cutbacks at the municipal and provincial government levels. He developed new programs that brought together residents, politicians, experts and the police to address issues of the homeless. His work on the homeless program was recognized when he became the 2006 Academic of the Year, an honour given by the Confederation of Faculty Associations of British Columbia. He received a 2007 Community Achievement Award from the Province of British Columbia.
The same year, Jang volunteered for Think City, a citizens group devoted to promoting engagement in civic affairs, such as budget consultations and policy development. With the assistance of the Tides Foundation, Jang helped arrange a forum that brought together residents and agencies from across Vancouver to share their experiences and learn from each other on how to tackle major issues such as housing, homelessness, and addiction. UBC’s Faculty of Medicine recently honored Jang with a Community Service Award for his years of volunteer work.
Jang serves on the Mental Health and the Law Advisory Committee by Michael Kirby, a task force that sets national policy and standards on mental health. The work of this body will directly impact municipalities like Vancouver on issues such as policing, corrections, housing standards and management for areas like the Downtown East Side along with other parts of the city.
“My dad's side of the family had a strong social conscience," Jang said. "They were teachers and social workers. I followed this side of the family. Anti-establishment. But my father still thinks you don't rock the boat. 'Be careful of this politics thing,' he tells me. 'People are going to hate you. They're going to heave that sign in your front yard through your front window,' he says.” Jang laughed. "I don't think they will."
Photo above of Dr. Kerry Jang by Linda Solomon