Chinese in chains: A Q&A with Steve James about Abacus: Small Enough To Jail

By Jim Slotek

A bunch of bankers in a “perp-walk” – chained to each other by handcuffs and led into custody in front of a horde of photographers. It’s a wish-dream for anybody who remembers the Big-Bank grand larceny of 2008.

But these perp-walkers were Chinese-Americans, running a small, family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown. They were small-fry, their culpability hazy (they had one of the lowest default rates in the country).

And they were the only bankers to face charges while criminal big fish like the Bank of America and AIG were being bailed out with hundreds of billions of tax dollars.

 Steve James

Steve James

The story of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank and its founder Thomas Sung is told in Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, a documentary by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself). It’s the story of a close-knit family of mainly-female Asian-American professionals who refused to roll over to a grandstanding District Attorney looking to score points by bagging a bank – any bank.
I talked to James about the film, which debuted at TIFF last year and opens at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema this week. I agreed not to disclose the 2015 verdict in the trial (Google it if you must). In the lead-up to that verdict, the Sungs paid $10 million in defence costs when they could have settled much earlier.

ORIGINAL-CIN: I think next to the perp walk, what I remember most vividly  from this film is (DA) Cyrus Vance, denying racism, by saying the charges were “consistent with how we’d handle a bank that serviced the South American or Indian community.” He might as well have added, “Or any other non-white group.”

JAMES: (Laughs) “I don’t think in any way is he an overt racist who has it in for minorities or the Chinese community. The overzealousness of that spectacle in my view is due to his desire to make a huge statement about being the guy to go after a guilty bank in the wake of the 2008 crisis.

“He never leaves that position even in our interview. ‘Why this little bank? Why not one of the big banks?’

“That’s the point in the film where he says, ‘Some of the behavior by the big banks could be termed as less than ethical.’ Really? That’s how you refer to them? Not criminal and morally bankrupt?

“And then he very quickly says, ‘But some of what was going on at Abacus were the same kinds of things.’

“But it was in no way the kind of fraud that was going on with the big banks. They weren’t involved in all these credit default flops and all these crazy vehicles and insurance on top of insurance. They weren’t doing any of that at all. It was bargain basement basic-level fraud committed by a few people, who were turned in by the bank itself as soon as they were discovered.”

 Daughters Vera and Jill Sung, patriarch and Abacus founder Thomas Sung

Daughters Vera and Jill Sung, patriarch and Abacus founder Thomas Sung

OC: But the point is made in your film that if these were Black executives led in chains, there’d have been hell to pay. I also suspect if it were the Black or Latino community whose main source of small loans was being targeted, the courtroom would have been filled with noisy spectators. Thomas Sung was very popular, but the court seems kind of empty.

JAMES: “A lot of times people said to us that the Chinese community in New York City – and I don’t know if it extends elsewhere – they don’t vote. They’re not political. And I think some of that is a legacy of where they’re from. They come from a police state in which voting is of no consequence. And there’s also a fear of the state which they bring with them. I think that’s a big part of the reason the community didn’t rally in protest around the Sungs, even though they supported them privately. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself.

“That’s why Mr. Sung and (community activist) Don Lee said this can’t be allowed to happen again.”

OC: I found the whole “gift note” concept to be culturally fascinating (Many Abacus small loan applications used ‘gift notes’ from friends and family as collateral. The DA’s office argued that, since they were expected to be paid, they were loans and thus constituted fraud in their Fannie Mae filings.)

JAMES: “As the New Yorker reporter in the film points out, in that community, the gift notes are loans if they can be paid back, and they don’t necessarily need to be paid back monetarily. They can be paid in terms of looking after someone’s parents or relatives. And if you can’t pay it back then you don’t pay it back. They’re not loans in the way the DA’s office tried to paint them.

“When immigrant communities gain a foothold in America, they tend to work in cash-economy industries and that’s a reality of their existence. Buying a home and starting a business is one of the ways immigrants and immigrant communities climb up the ladder.”

OC: The family, especially the daughters, seem right out of central casting – photogenic and charismatic. How did you gain their confidence to record their private conversations?

JAMES: “They were great. It’s due in part without question to the fact that one of producers, Mark Mitten, had known the family for 10 years when we began the film. He met Vera Sung years ago socially and they became friends.That made the family more receptive. And they met me and liked me and thought I was an okay guy.

“But the deeper reason was they believed in their innocence.  They didn’t believe they had anything to hide. And win or lose, this was a story that deserved to be told to a larger audience than the Chinese-American press, which covered the case dutifully.” (The New York Times and other media covered the charges and the verdict, but not the trial).

OC: Oddly, the timing for your movie seems right, nine years after the meltdown. It’s like people had a delayed reaction being angry. There was The Big Short, and anger over the big banks played a big part in last year’s election, with both the Sanders campaign and – ironically – the Trump campaign. Why do you think this is?

JAMES: “For this case, the loan that kicked this all off happened in 2009. So you’re talking about the slow wheels of justice that constitutes the American judicial system.  

“But I feel there was a lot of anger when it became clearer what the banks were doing, that we were not only not breaking them up, we were bailing them out. And I think the election deepened it because - whether it’s the big banks we’re talking about or not - there’s this sense that American society has seen a very small group become wealthier and wealthier, and that wealth is continuing to go in that direction.

“There’s just increasing anger at inequity, both racial and class in this country.”

Abacus: Small Enough To Jail. Directed by Steve James. Starring Thomas Sung, Vera Sung, Cyrus Vance Jr. Opening Friday June 2 at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema.

Jim Slotek

Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.