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CFUV @ VFF 2017: Abacaus: Small Enough To Jail

Mr. Sung


Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

While the Obama administration handed some major banks millions of dollars to save them from financial collapse in 2008, with the claim they were “too big to fail,” it took 10 million dollars and five years of their lives for the family run Abacus bank to prove themselves innocent of the District Attorney’s charges.  Fraud had occurred at their bank, employee Ken Yu went to jail for that, but founder Thomas Sung and his three management level daughters were found not guilty on all charges because they weren’t directly involved.

This documentary chronicles Mr. Sung’s early career, as a young immigrant who studied law and for many years worked many pro bono cases including for New York City’s  Chinatown Benevolent Society.  His idea to start a bank met with discouragement from his wife, but Mr. Sung wanted to establish a place where Chinese people were welcome to both deposit money and receive loans.  With his daughters they crafted Abacus bank, named after the Chinese calculator, and built a structure designed to help a community that met too often with discrimination and inequity.

As Mr. Sung stands among over 8000 security deposit boxes he explains it takes a lot of time to build the trust of new immigrants, so their practice is to store their cash in the deposit boxes until they feel confident depositing it into the bank itself.

Despite the District Attorney’s best efforts to discredit this family, who admittedly oversaw a financial institution where fraud was occurring but immediately took steps to remedy it and dismiss those who were perpetuating it once they were discovered, the Sung family brought their struggle to the people.  During the five years of court proceedings they continued to discuss the case openly over family dinners in Chinatown’s restaurants, while walking down the street talking on cellphones, or with the local barber during a haircut.

Abacus was the only bank indicted during the 2008 financial crisis.  Employees were arrested at their workplace, chained together and led out of the bank in a manner that had never been witnessed before.  Despite their claims to the contrary, it seems clear the District Attorney’s office wanted not only to scapegoat Abacus, hold them up as an example of what bad banks do (and jail an innocent family while letting the big banks go free), but to discredit the entire Chinese community and cast a shadow of mistrust over all of Chinatown.

The story is well told, clearly explained, and incorporates many views including jurors and independent journalists Matt Taibbi ( and Dave Lindorff ( who reported on it while it was happening.



For more of CFUV’s VFF coverage click here.

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