Tragedy of Toronto’s murderous ‘golden child’ Jennifer Pan resonates with Asian immigrants

She convinced her parents she was a straight-A high school and college graduate - but when they discovered her lies, she hired hitmen to kill them

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

For a while, Jennifer Pan’s parents regarded her as their “golden child".

The young Canadian woman, who lived in the city of Markham just north of Toronto, was a straight-A student at a Catholic school who won scholarships and early acceptance to college. True to her father’s wishes, she graduated from the University of Toronto’s prestigious pharmacology programme and went on to work at a blood-testing lab at SickKids hospital.

Pan’s accomplishments used to make her mother and father, Bich Ha and Huei Hann Pan, brim with pride. After all, they had arrived in Toronto as refugees from Vietnam, working as labourers for an car parts manufacturer so their two kids could have the bright future that they couldn’t attain for themselves. 

But in Pan’s case, that perfect fate was all an elaborate lie. Pan, born in 1986, failed to graduate from high school, let alone the University of Toronto, as she had told her parents.

Her deception culminated in bloodshed - the murder of her mother, and the attempted killing of her father.

Her trial, for plotting with hit men to kill her parents, ended in January, and she’s serving a long sentence. But the full story of this troubled young woman is just now being told as a complete and powerful narrative by someone who knew her.

In a story published in Toronto Life magazine last week, young reporter Karen Ho detailed the intricate web of deception that her high school classmate at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School in north Scarborough spun to prevent her parents from discovering the unimaginable: that their golden child was, in fact, failing.

Using court documents and interviews, Ho pieced together Pan’s descent from a precocious elementary schooler to a chronic liar who forged report cards, scholarship letters and university transcripts — all to preserve an image of perfection. The headline: “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge: the inside story of a golden child, the killers she hired, and the parents she wanted dead.”

Their high school, Ho wrote, “was the perfect community for a student like Jennifer. A social butterfly with an easy, high-pitched laugh, she mixed with guys, girls, Asians, Caucasians, jocks, nerds, people deep into the arts. Outside of school, Jennifer swam and practiced the martial art of wushu.”

But Ho would “discover later that Jennifer’s friendly, confident persona was a facade, beneath which she was tormented by feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and shame”.

The real Jennifer never enrolled in university. She never graduated from high school.

Instead of heading to the University of Toronto, Jennifer would go to public libraries for the day.

Years later, it was time to “graduate”. When it came time for the ceremony, Pan told her parents there weren’t enough tickets to go around and they could not attend.

Ultimately, Ho wrote, Pan’s parents got suspicious, began tailing her and learned the truth.

When Pan’s parents learned that all of their efforts had been for naught, they placed tight restrictions on their now-adult daughter. No more cellphone. No more laptop. No more clandestine dates with her boyfriend, Daniel Wong.

While she eventually gained more freedom, Pan stayed angry.  And so, with Wong’s help, she plotted to kill her parents.

The scene described in the trial is gruesome. In November 2010, in a planned murder disguised to look like a robbery gone awry, Pan played the part of helpless witness as hired hit men fatally shot her mother and severely wounded her father. She called 911, distraught, to bolster the illusion of a home invasion.

But police officers investigating the case caught on within a couple weeks. This lie — that an immigrant couple was shot by random burglars and not through the will of their daughter — would have to be Pan’s last.

This January, an Ontario court found Pan, Wong and two of the hit-men guilty of first-degree murder and attempted murder. They were all handed life sentences with no chance of parole for 25 years. A third man, who has pleaded not guilty, will be tried separately.

Since it was published last Wednesday, the Toronto Life article  has struck a powerful chord with Asian immigrant children in Canada and the United States who have taken to social media to share tales of childhoods characterised by high expectations and the crippling fear associated with not meeting them.

But it’s a mistake to take one case and generalise or stereotype, noted Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at the University of California Irvine who specialises in Asian-American life in America. And she said, it would be a mistake to attribute Pan’s troubles to “tiger parenting”.

Pan’s story is an extreme case. “It’s so easy to blame immigrant parents,” said Lee, who co-authored the recently released book The Asian American Achievement Paradox. “The danger of highlighting cases like Jennifer’s is that they contribute to a misconception that all Asian-American kids experience this extreme pressure and are mentally unstable.”