Broken promise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 November, 2011, 12:00am


In the uneasy silence of a room where minutes earlier she wept inconsolably for her loss, the mother of the murdered girl composes herself, wipes away her tears and, with quiet dignity, lays out a neat row of documents for me to examine. It is the paraphernalia of a young life lost: glowing school reports out of which smiles the face of a bright girl; exam certificates; bank loans secured to send her overseas; wage slips; and the property transactions made to fund college fees in Britain.

Pan Ning, 49, a former factory worker who sacrificed everything to give her daughter, Jia, a better life away from her home city of Guilin, in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, gazes sadly at the documents spread across the table. This paper trail of hope led Jia from an upbringing by a single mother in one of the mainland's poorest areas to what must have seemed an impossible dream of academic excellence and a life abroad.

'These papers used to represent everything we had worked for. They used to represent our future,' says Pan, who goes by the name of Penny. 'Now they mean nothing. They are just worthless scraps of paper.'

IN EARLY MARCH, while winter snow still blanketed Britain, Jia - a petite 25-year-old economics graduate who married a British fellow student - was beaten to death as she walked home through woods from her job at the headquarters of chocolate maker Thorntons, in Derbyshire. Her brutal murder generated nationwide publicity in Britain, especially when her husband, Matthew, with whom she had had an argument the night before her disappearance, was arrested. He would be released without charge three days later.

Matthew, a music teacher, was cleared of any blame and, after a manhunt lasting weeks, 21-year-old drifter David Simmonds was arrested and charged with Jia's murder. Last month, he was jailed for 28 years.

It was a murder of the ultimate senselessness. When an attempted robbery went wrong, Simmonds - who weighed three times as much as Jia - apparently panicked as she fought back and pummelled her to death, rupturing her heart. She had only a few pounds in her purse.

For Penny - who met and married Matthew's divorced father, John, after their children married in 2006 - Jia's death marked the end of an extraordinary journey out of poverty.

Speaking from her home in Guilin, Penny gives her reaction to the sentence handed to Simmonds: 'Of course I'm not happy with it; I wish he could be executed, but that isn't possible in England, so 28 years will have to do. I only wish that Jia were still alive.

'In China, if you kill someone, you have to die for it. If you take a life, you pay with a life. In England the laws are too lenient.'

Penny's last days with her daughter were spent celebrating the Lunar New Year in early February.

'Jia told me she was planning to start a family with Matthew this year and that next year they would move to a bigger house. She said, 'You can move next to us and look after the baby. I have a good future and I will look after you.' I was so happy.

'We had such wonderful plans. I was going to be a grandmother. We had worked so hard and suffered so much but we had a happy future to look forward to. Now it has all been snatched away.'

On Wednesday, March 9, the night before Jia disappeared, Penny rang her daughter from the home she shares with John in Ashton-under-Lyne, Manchester. Mother told daughter that she had booked a March 12 flight home to China.

'There were so many things I wanted to ask my daughter but I couldn't talk to her for long because of what was going on. I really regret not asking now. I didn't know it would be the last time we would ever talk,' she says.

News that Jia was missing reached Penny when Matthew - who, because of the argument, was staying in a hotel on the day she disappeared and didn't return home until the Friday - phoned his father late on Friday night, as Penny was packing for her flight.

Hoping she had gone to stay with friends, Penny says, 'I went ahead to the airport thinking she would call me at any time and say, 'It's OK mum, I'm at a friend's house.' Then I could get on my flight to China.'

The call never came and Penny cancelled her night flight home.

'I spent that night at Jia's house and on Sunday, John and I went back to Ashton-under-Lyne. Then, at about 2am on Monday, Matthew's mother phoned John to tell him Jia's body had been found.

'I just cried and cried. I felt I had just lost everything in that moment. The thought crossed my mind that I wanted to go with my daughter. I wanted to die, too.'

WHEN JIA WAS BORN, Penny was a factory worker in Guilin. Sharing a company dormitory with five other workers, she had married a factory delivery driver but their relationship was already crumbling when she discovered she was pregnant. Penny would divorce her husband four years later.

Penny returned home to Guilin at the end of March, to seek comfort. Recounting her story in a local restaurant, surrounded by family friends and Jia's former teachers, she says, 'I thought about ending my pregnancy but I couldn't do it.

'Instead, the moment I had my daughter I was determined not to let her go through what I had experienced. I wanted her to be educated and to have a good future.'

Penny held down up to three jobs at a time to pay for the best education for her bright, irrepressibly cheerful daughter - taking jobs as a welder in a car factory and a taxi driver and trading in minerals, before saving enough to set up her own restaurant in the city's suburbs.

She worked in the restaurant from 6am until 2am or 3am and all her savings were put aside for tuition fees and a place in Guangxi's best school, where Jia found herself among children from wealthy families aiming for college places in Australia and Canada.

'When she was 15, Jia told me that if we had the money, she wouldn't go to Australia or Canada to study. She said, 'I would go to England,'' Penny says. 'I asked her why and she said, 'Because there aren't as many Chinese people in England.' She wanted to go somewhere with more English speakers so she could learn English better.

'It all seemed like one big daydream because we weren't rich and I only had a restaurant. But I thought about it and I realised the restaurant was worth almost one million yuan if I sold it - and that might be enough to send Jia to school abroad.'

A devout Christian, Penny says, 'Every day I prayed to God to help me, and everything suddenly worked out. My brother's friends bought the restaurant and we had the money for Jia to study abroad. When I told Jia, she was so happy. She danced round and round the room. I said to her, 'I have given you everything. When I am old, you must give me everything.' And she smiled and said, 'No problem.''

Penny queued overnight at the British consulate in Guangzhou, where, still aged just 15, Jia had a make-or-break visa application interview for her sixth-form college place in England.

'I can't remember the questions but Jia was excellent. She was so flexible and confident. They gave her a five-year visa on the spot. We were so happy. We hugged each other and we were in tears.'

Throughout Jia's three years at Bellerbys College, Brighton, and three years at the University of Warwick, Penny struggled to raise the GBP30,000 (HK$373,000) a year - a vast sum for a single mother in rural China - needed to pay the fees. She took out bank loans and invested and sold flats and houses, sometimes striking deals at the last minute to keep Jia in college, where she was excelling at exams while taking part-time jobs and earning academic scholarships to ease the financial burden.

'There were times when it was really difficult. She was ringing me and saying, 'Mum, you really need to send the money or I will be deported back to China,'' says Penny.

At one point - unbeknown to Jia - the money ran out and the banks called in their loans. Penny had to turn to her mother and brother, who called on friends and relatives and raised 200,000 yuan to keep Jia at college.

'I missed Jia so much and I bought phone cards to ring England,' says Penny. 'When I spoke to her, she only told me about the good days. She never told me about the bad days and the days when she got sick.

'She worked part time as a librarian and in a nursing home to help pay the bills. She didn't tell me what she was doing. She just said, 'I've got a good job with good money.'

'When I went to England to visit her in 2004, she showed me the old people's home where she worked. I stood crying on the doorstep. I realised this was the 'good job with good pay' she had been telling me about. While all the other students went home for the Christmas holidays, Jia had been working through the night looking after elderly people and cleaning up after them. I felt so sad.'

Despite the ever-present financial pressures, Jia's A-level results were so good she was told she could apply to enter Oxford or Cambridge universities, Penny says. 'But she was very clever and she knew exactly what she wanted.

'She wanted to study economics and she told me, 'OK, so this isn't Oxford or Cambridge, but for my major, it is one of the best places in the UK to study economics, so that's why I'm going there.'

It was during her first year at the University of Warwick that Jia met Matthew.

'They met late at night on campus, when Matthew was moving rooms and he had all this stuff to shift,' says Penny. 'It was a beautiful starry night with a bright moon. Jia offered her help and that is how they met. There had been other boys who wanted to date Jia, but she didn't like any of them.

'Jia called me just before they were about to exchange engagement rings and said, 'I am going to accept his proposal. Then we're going to take our exams.' She was very excited when she called and I was very happy, too. I wasn't worried the engagement would interfere with her exams. I wasn't worried about anything. I trusted my daughter. She knew what was important and what she had to do.'

Penny first met Matthew in 2006, before the wedding.

'I thought he was a good boy. He helped Jia do many things and Jia helped Matthew and made him more confident. When Matthew was 12, his parents divorced and he got moody. When he met Jia, it gave him more confidence. They were a good match.'

The couple celebrated their wedding in Guilin in 2006.

'It was a very simple wedding. Matthew's parents didn't come. It was only me and my family and some friends. There were only three tables in a big restaurant,' Penny says. 'Matthew didn't want a big traditional wedding banquet. So we only invited the best and closest friends.'

It was when Matthew visited the mainland again, this time with his father, that Penny met and fell in love with her daughter's father-in-law, who is now 61. They married three years ago and divide their time between Ashton-under-Lyne and Guilin.

Recalling her final days with her daughter is almost too much for Penny to bear: 'We spent the Chinese New Year together and she gave me an early Mother's Day present - a porcelain figure made in Derbyshire - because she knew I would be going back to China soon. Jia was working very hard and she seemed so tired. I said, 'Why don't you come to China and open a business with me and we can work together?'

'She said, 'No. I've been in England since I was 15. I like England. I want to stay here and work for the career I've strived for. I want a good life for myself and I want to make money to look after you.'

Penny is haunted by the thought that Jia might still be alive if she hadn't struggled so hard to put her daughter through college and university in England.

However, 'I still like England because my daughter liked England. It is the place where her dream came true,' she says.

Her daughter's marriage to Matthew was happy, Penny says, even though she knew they argued.

'Her life was stressful,' she says. 'But they both loved children and Jia told me she wanted to have three.'

Days before returning to the mainland, Penny paid an emotional visit to her daughter's former colleagues at Thorntons.

'There was a long queue of her colleagues waiting outside their offices with cards for me. They waited for me, gave me their cards and hugged me,' she says. 'They all told me they loved her and they all missed her.'

Although she went back to the mainland to seek the comfort of her family, Penny's return has been intensely painful. Jia's father - with whom Jia kept in close contact - is so upset he cannot bear to look at her picture.

'I have spoken to many people in the church and friends,' says Penny. 'I have tried to speak to God. I never did bad things. My daughter was a good person. Why did God let this happen?

'I keep praying and I keep asking, but I haven't had a clear answer yet. I am still waiting.'