A Daughter’s Deadly Deception
by Jeremy Grimaldi
In 2010, a young Canadian woman named Jennifer Pan hired hitmen to fake a break-in at her family home and shoot her parents.
Her father, Huei Hann, saved himself by dragging his bleeding body onto the front lawn. Her mother, Bich Ha, died on the spot, but not before begging for her daughter to be spared. Little did she know that Jennifer was sitting upstairs, listening to the screams as the crime she had masterminded unfolded.
Many readers who pick up A Daughter’s Deadly Deception, by Canadian journalist Jeremy Grimaldi, will be aware of the high-profile case on which the book is based. News of the murder sent shockwaves across Canada and the Asian diaspora, in large part because the assault seemed so unlikely. The crime took place in the comfortable Toronto suburb of Markham, which has a large Asian population. The victims were hardworking ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, relaxing at home on a quiet Monday night.
The main suspect turned out to be their polite, bespectacled, 24-year-old daughter – an accomplished student, athlete and musician who blamed her mental breakdown on years of extreme parental pressure.
The story stayed in the news throughout years of police investigations and the trial that followed. Last year, Pan, her ex-boyfriend, Daniel Wong, and two accomplices were sentenced to life in prison; a fifth conspirator was sentenced on a lesser charge.
Grimaldi, a court reporter who covered the case, takes a closer look at the crime in this almost 350-page book. With the culprits long since jailed, this is a psychological thriller that is not so much a whodunnit as a how-done-it and why-done-it. What possible motive could Pan have had?
Grimaldi begins with a vivid snapshot of the crime. Pan’s father was sleeping after a long day at work and her mother, wearing her pyjamas, was soaking her feet in a tub when three men rushed into the home brandishing guns. The couple shouted out in English and Cantonese before being dragged to the basement and shot.
Some of Grimaldi’s best writing comes in his description of the police questioning of Pan. He used transcripts, video footage and photo stills to recreate the hours she spent in a windowless interrogation room, at times hunched over sobbing, at others curled in a fetal position. Grimaldi explains the psychological techniques used by the veteran detectives, and it is here the reader learns of the pressures that brought about Pan’s derangement.
Like many Asian children, Pan was expected to maintain a strict schedule that often kept her up until midnight. A talented musician and athlete, she was told she could be a concert pianist or even compete in the Olympics as a figure skater. Make-up, dating and school dances were forbidden.
As a ninth grader, she used art supplies to doctor her maths and science results. It was a child’s white lie. But as time passed the web of deception she wove became ever more tangled until, too terrified to admit she had failed senior-year calculus, Pan secretly dropped out of high school. On what was to be her first day at university, she left home with the new laptop her parents had proudly presented her with and sat for the day in a public library.
The tragic irony of Pan’s tale is that, while not an Olympian or maths whiz, she shouldn’t have been on the path to delinquency, either. She had been a decent student with a high-school boyfriend, a job at a pizza parlour, a younger brother she loved and dreams of becoming a music teacher.
Nevertheless, she spent years paying professional forgers so that she could pretend she had graduated from university and was working as a pharmacist.
When her parents eventually discovered her lies, they cut her off from her long-term boyfriend and confiscated her money and phone. Aged 24, Pan was given a 9pm curfew. Having already shown signs of depression and self-harm, with this final blow, she broke down and plotted her revenge.
The police tracked down Pan’s hired hitmen to Rexdale, another Toronto suburb with large minority and immigrant populations.
Grimaldi uses Rexdale to put Pan’s crime into the context of greater Toronto, a multicultural city of almost five million people. Markham has many families like the Pans, living in McMansions and driving luxury cars. Thirty-five kilometres away in Rexdale other immigrants live in poverty, surrounded by crime. There is the unspoken assumption that, had it been a poor black couple shot in Rexdale, the crime would not have garnered anything like as much attention.
Pan’s accomplices were Jamaican Lenford Crawford; David Mylvaganam, born in Montreal to a Sri Lankan father and a Jamaican mother; and Eric Carty, a drug dealer who would be convicted of another murder. The crime they committed was heinous but the temptation is to cast all those involved as villains: the downtrodden daughter, the greedy thugs and the overbearing parents.
Perhaps it is the Canadian in Grimaldi that makes him look for a sympathetic side to every character. He does not excuse the inexcusable but he does seek out motivations. Deadly Deception might not be Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but this thorough exploration of what leads seemingly decent people to horrific actions is no tawdry crime paperback, either.
News of the murder provoked hand-wringing in Asian communities worldwide, not least because “dragon” parenting was blamed in part for Pan’s actions.
Like many Hongkongers, I was aware of disturbing parts of my own culture being played out in the Pan family’s drama. Raised in Canada and America as the child of immigrants, I found Hann and Bich Ha’s approach extreme but not uncommon for parents intent on giving the next generation a good start. The pressure put on children can be enormous, but so are the struggles faced by their parents in a new country.
Grimaldi, a white Canadian, does his best to illuminate both sides. He has certainly done his homework, citing Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and essays such as Candice Chung’s Why Chinese Parents Don’t Say I Love You.
In the end it is the story of the father, the book’s most sympathetic character, that resonates most.
Hann arrived in Canada aged 26 as a refugee and “boat person”, with little money and next to no English. He rose each day at 5am and worked overtime in a factory to pay for his children’s education. He and his wife for years delayed a trip to Vietnam, waiting first for their children to graduate from university.
We later see Hann in a courtroom as an ageing widower recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, testifying through a translator against the daughter who betrayed him.
One of the family’s requests to the court was that Jennifer not be allowed to contact them. For the next two decades, she is legally barred from saying one word to her father and brother. Not even to apologise.