Karen K. Ho’s July Toronto Life story about childhood friend Daniel Wong and his then-girlfriend Jennifer Pan. Image courtesy Toronto Life.

How Karen K. Ho’s reporting on a murder plot earned her two NMA nominations

Ho’s Toronto Life story “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge” explores why Pan tried to have her parents killed. By Ashley Moffat When Karen K. Ho heard the name of her childhood friend Daniel Wong during a television news report in 2010 she couldn’t help but blurt out to a co-worker that they had grown up together. Wong…

Ho’s Toronto Life story “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge” explores why Pan tried to have her parents killed.

By Ashley Moffat

When Karen K. Ho heard the name of her childhood friend Daniel Wong during a television news report in 2010 she couldn’t help but blurt out to a co-worker that they had grown up together.

Wong was once her fellow student at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School in Scarborough. Now he was charged with attempted murder due to his involvement in plotting to kill the parents of his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Pan.

After years of lying to her parents about her seemingly perfect life, Pan got caught. She hadn’t actually graduated from high school and she wasn’t the high achieving university student she had led her parents to believe. Her strict parents who requited Pan to be the best, became even stricter. They didn’t allow her access to her cell phone unless she was in her parent’s presence and they barred her from seeing Wong. So Pan and Wong devised a plan to hire some old elementary school acquaintances, who Pan had recently reconnected with, to murder Pan’s parents.

The co-worker urged Ho to pursue the story and she did—she pitched it to Toronto Life and they loved it. Ho spent the next three-and-a-half years reporting on her former classmates. The result, “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge,” has been nominated for a National Magazine Award in the best new magazine writer and society categories.

Ho went through thousands of pages of court documents and took strategic days off from her part-time job at BNN, where she worked from Mar. 2014 to Feb. 2015, to attend important court dates for the case.

Ho, who reads a lot of crime stories, noticed that there is often a similar narrative when covering stories of people who commit murders. They were quiet, or were loners who didn’t have any friends. What she knew about Wong told her that this wasn’t the case.

“What I learned about Daniel and later even Jennifer, was that these were people that had friends who really cared about them,” said Ho. “They had decades with their friends and their families. I wanted to pay respect out of fairness to that. I think it’s really easy just to paint them as jilted lovers and all of those stereotypes.”

But reaching out to old high school friends to get background on both Pan and Wong wasn’t always easy. “A lot of people turned me down,” said Ho. “It’s often really awkward speaking to people that I would have normally just casually talked to from high school. Bringing up this classmate who’s now been tried for murder. A lot of them didn’t even answer my calls.”

Then came the difficulties of navigating her personal relationships with some of the people she was reporting on.  In order to better understand her former friend, Ho approached Wong’s family. “I spent a lot of time with Daniel’s family,” Ho said. “It was really hard because initially. I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish the story. I had never done investigative crime or a magazine piece before. So when I was talking to Daniel’s family, I would just take notes. I never had a voice recorder. Then when I finally decided from our conversations what I wanted to include, I asked them for permission. It was only three or four small details. That was a really complicated relationship. I haven’t spoken to them since the story came out.”

The decision to include Ho’s personal connection to the story and her shared cultural history as a first-generation Canadian to East Asian parents, however, wasn’t initially part of the plan. “I didn’t think about talking about myself until the mid-to-late part of the writing process,” said Ho. “I was really hesitant. I didn’t want to deviate from the story itself. And I was just focused on my friendship with Daniel and not my similar upbringing.”

But Ho’s editor, Malcolm Johnston, told her that there was something in her perspective that would help make sense of why this murder happened. “Quite honestly, if a white guy was writing about this story and had never gone to the high school, or had the same kind of background I think it would have been much more stereotypical or simplified story than the one that I laid out.”

Ho explained that she’d seen friends who had gone through some of the same pressure that Pan had gone through growing up. They both felt pressured from their parents to excel in school. It can be difficult explaining to people in different cultures what it was like to grow up like Pan did.

“I understand what it’s like to have friends who say ‘why don’t you just move out?’ And trying to explain, or not feeling like you can fully explain, why that’s not possible,” she said. “People say that [Pan] was such a chronic liar,” said Ho Pan had  lied to her parents about graduating high school, she lied about going to university every day, even doctoring report cars from the University of Toronto where she had told her parents she was attending. “But if your entire life experience is that you have to be [a certain way] and if you’re anything less than that you’re a total failure of a person. That’s a suffocating situation that a lot of people have gone through that hasn’t been discussed in a long time.”

Once all the hard work was done and the story came out, Ho was surprised by the response the story received. It had been picked up by major American publications like the New York Daily News and The Washington Post. But it was the response on social media that surprised her the most.

“I think it was particularly the East Asian responses I got on Reddit and MetaFilter,” said Ho. “Just the idea that talking about the pressure. I was struck by how many men felt the same way: having to get 90s in school, that kind of feeling of being a disappointment to your parents, or even the way that you’re expect to live at home, the limits of social life, the expectation of excellence. That kind of outpouring was very unexpected.”

One particular interview she did with a Vietnamese publication helped her see how many people were affected by the story. One man told her: “Your story makes me re-think how I’m parenting my daughter.” This surprised her. “I had never expected that something like this would affect people this way,” she said. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen that often. So that was very surreal. “

Ashley Moffatt just finished a field placement at Metro Ottawa and will graduate from Algonquin College’s journalism program this spring.