March 7, 2018

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail: Documentary Describes Racist Targeting of Chinese American Bank

By Kam Williams

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is an Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicles an outrageous example of bigotry against the Sung’s Chinese American immigrant family. Patriarch Thomas Sung was inspired by the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, when he and his family founded the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in 1984 in New York City’s Chinatown.

He wanted to help the people of his community get loans after repeatedly witnessing how other lending institutions were willing take Chinese people’s deposits, but were reluctant to let them borrow money. Abacus flourished over the years, and his daughters, Jill and Heather, joined the family business as executives after they became lawyers.

The world came crashing down around them when the bank — and 19 of its employees — were charged with conspiracy, larceny, and fraud in the wake of of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. What’s stunning is that Abacus was the only financial institution that the government ever charged criminally after the collapse of the mortgage market. Adding insult to injury, the case was based entirely on evidence which Abacus Bank had turned over to federal regulators, as required by law, after they discovered felonious behavior on the part of some of their loan officers, whom they fired on the spot.

Was the ensuing prosecution malicious or warranted? Judge for yourself. But don’t be surprised if this chilling exposé leaves you convinced that the Sungs were innocent victims of a legal system that doled out “justice” in a color-coded fashion, even though it was a white-collar crime.

Excellent (****). Unrated. In English, Mandarin, and Cantonese with subtitles. Running time: 88 minutes. Production Studios: Kartemquin Films/Blue Ice Films/Mitten Media/Motto Pictures. Distributor: PBS Distribution.