He was about my age. He was about my height. And he sported the same bar-of-soap shape I did. Plus it looked like someone had cut his hair by first placing a bowl on his head and removing what remained showing. He was applying to be a doctor in our Downtown Eastside clinic.
I looked at him, asked a few questions and reviewed his credentials. He answered well, spoke well enough, was a recent graduate of a reputable Canadian university and had done his residency in Toronto. He had a pleasant demeanor. On the face of it, he would be perfect. Except for the face of it. He was Chinese.
“Than you for applying,” I said. “But I don’t think this is the right fit for you. So, no. No thanks.”
Stunned at such a quick rejection, he repeated himself, “No, I be doctor. I apply for job. I am ready to work. Hire me.”
Again, “No, I be doctor. I have papers. I work here. Why not?”
“Well, to be blunt, you are Chinese. This is skid row. We have hundreds of crazy, addicted and violent people coming in here every day but none of them are Chinese. I am sure your culture has problems but they are different from the ones here. You would be out of place, out of your element. You would not be happy.”
“Yes. I am Chinese. But, no problem.”
I went on to describe the racism, the madness, the hatred, the dysfunction and the danger that he would face every day. “They’ll call you gook and chink. They’ll call you slant-eyed. They will be rude, resistant and horrible. They do that to all of us because they are angry but you provide a racial component for them to target extra cruelly. You’ll hate it.”
It was hard to say no to a person who had just faced a barrage of the very prejudice that was to come if I hired him, but he seemed determined and that was the primary attribute I was looking for in an employee. Until he applied, no doctor had lasted more than two years and many didn’t last three months. I didn’t see that record being challenged by Dr. Daniel Wang.
“OK. You are hired. But, here’s the deal. You give it a fair shot. When it becomes clear to you that this is too hard, too mean, too ugly, let me know and I will find you a nice job at St. Paul’s hospital and you can work there and buy a nice Mercedes-Benz like all the other doctors. Deal?”
Daniel was given the hardest job of all the doctors. He was on the streets every day. No office. No examination room. His job was to carry the classic doctor’s black bag and ferret out the sick and diseased that were so far gone that they no longer came to the clinic. He had to go to the rat-infested, addict strewn, filthy rooming houses that filled the Downtown East Side — most of the time alone. He was back-up for the street nurses but had his own caseload as well. Daniel was an average, mid twenties, dyed-in-the-silk Chinese, even down to the initially-heavy Chinglish he spoke. He was a relatively new Canadian having been here only long enough to get his education and find his way to our clinic. He didn’t have any experience. He didn’t have any street skills either and he was completely naive about the job he faced. He basically didn’t have a clue.
I gave him three months.
Daniel out-lasted me. Daniel stayed in skid row for eight years. Daniel was, by far, the best doctor we ever had at the clinic by longevity standards alone. I think he was the best doctor the area ever had and I am pretty sure that he would have been good anywhere.
Of course, as the years went by, we became friends and one day he wanted to go to lunch at a fancy uptown restaurant in one of the top five hotels in the city.
“Dan, we can’t go there. You always wear dress clothes but I am in jeans and a t-shirt.”
We went in my beaten up old sports car and he instructed me to park in a reserved space by the entry. That seemed odd. We entered the hotel, walked to the restaurant and saw a long line with the maitre de controlling the red rope barring entry to the dining area. Dan walked to the front. I followed. At the head of the line-up, waiting his turn was the then mayor of the city, Jack Volrich. The maitre de dropped the rope, we walked through and took a place at a reserved table. The rope was put back in place. Jack cooled his heels in the line-up.
“Geez, Dan. How did we walk past the line up? How did we we get seated ahead of the mayor? What the hell is going on?”
“No problem. I own it.”
“You own the restaurant? How is that possible? We pay peanuts.”
“I own the hotel.”
Seems Dan’s family was rich. Rich enough to own the hotel and a lot of other stuff. Dan was not overly impressed by all that but, as number one son, he was still very much involved in the family empire. He preferred doctoring. On that particular day he had to attend to a quick business meeting and he thought we could catch lunch at the same time. I guessed later that it was his way of sharing his personal life with me. After a while I asked him why he would work as a doctor in skid row when he could afford to buy his own hospital or, at the very least, have his own clinic.
“I came to Canada eight years ago. I was fully accepted by everyone I met. No prejudice. No discrimination. I got my education here. My sons were born here. You even hired me. I am Canadian now and I appreciate this country very much. When I became a doctor, I decided I had to give something back. So, I decided to work in the worst place with the worst patients and do the best I could. It is my way of saying thank you to Canada. And I will continue to do that for as long as I can. But, I would appreciate it if you would not tell anyone. My family is rich and we have to worry about security.”
Over the years, we have remained friends. Really good friends. He went back to Hong Kong in the early nineties to manage the family empire but I have been over to visit. He has been back to visit. We are friends and shall remain so regardless of the distance. It’s not everyone who would do what he did, do it so well and do it so unselfishly. Daniel has lived most of his almost seventy years in Hong Kong. Only about ten or so were spent in Canada. But I see him as one of the best Canadians I have ever known.