A documentary about a Chinese underdog, which took on the U.S. government, is up for an Oscar. “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is the story of a family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown – the only bank prosecuted following the financial crisis 10 years ago.
CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports.
It’s been 10 years since the financial crash that began in the United States but was felt across the world.
Bad banking practices were blamed – specifically, the selling of toxic mortgages – with billions of dollars lost and a huge spike in home repossessions and foreclosures.
Yet, no single bank has ever been prosecuted. Except one.
With many decrying the lack of legal action being down to a ‘too big to fail’ attitude (the idea that prosecuting huge banks with trillion dollar businesses would lead to more financial turmoil), anger was leveled at the perceived lack of justice.
And New York’s District Attorney decided to go after a federal bank based in the city’s Chinatown district.
The film, ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,’ tells the story of that bank’s fight against prosecutors. It’s hoping to win Best Documentary (Feature) at this year’s Academy Awards in Hollywood.
Abacus Federal Savings Bank was founded by a Chinese immigrant, Thomas Sung. He runs it with the help of his daughters. For years, they helped provide mortgages to Chinese immigrants and those working in a cash economy in and around Chinatown. It had one of the lowest default rates in the country.
CGTN sat down with Steve James, director of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” and the Sung family about their experience fighting off criminal charges against their family bank in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
When they discovered that one of the bank’s loan officers was allegedly committing fraud, he was fired. The bank’s management reported the issue and undertook a full investigation. They brought in outside investigators and reported the findings to both regulators and law enforcement.
The District Attorney was also taking an interest – and after five years, it launched an indictment against the bank, claiming management must have been complicit.
Director Steve James followed the family’s journey, spending almost every day with them as they prepared for the fight of their lives to clear their names.
“I think the DA’s vision in terms of deciding to prosecute this case was clouded by ambition. Ambition to be the guy who actually brought a bank to its knees in the wake of the 2008 crisis because no big bank, that had happened to, so I think that clouded his understanding of what was going on, really, here,” James said.
“But I also think there was a real racism at work here,” he continued. “Unintended as it might be in that a feeling that this bank was one that would be safe to go after, that the Chinese American community, being politically disenfranchised, would not be a problem. And also, a profound misunderstanding of the way it is in an immigrant community – particularly one at the more or less bottom rung of American society, working in cash economies and trying to sort of gain a foothold in this country.”
“The prosecution showed no real interest or inclination to understand that,” James said. “If anything, they tried to use that to make this community kind of look worse and to make this bank look worse to win the case.”
Members of the family, who’d been indicted, reported to the court then shackled and paraded in front of TV cameras; something that shocked and appalled the film’s producer, Mark Mitten.
“It really was quite rare and outrageous that they would take these people who had already pleaded and brought them back in and just chain them for the spectacle,” he said.
“At the same time, the fact is that this was a financial crime. This is not like they were serial killers. It was something that was done merely for the PR spectacle of it all and that thing was the most troublesome part.”
Part of the District Attorney’s case revolved around a cultural issue that James claims they just didn’t understand: gift letters. Many who had applied for these mortgages included gift letters as part of their applications. But the DA insisted they were unpaid loans, and that the bank had knowingly committed fraud.
“The prosecution tried to paint the gift letters as really loans that were being passed off as gifts,” explained James. “And the reality – the truth is somewhere in between which we explain in the film.”
“In that culture, they are gifts from families, and if they can be paid back, they are paid back, but if they’re not paid back, then the family commitment is filled in other ways, and the prosecution was so bent on focusing on some of the cultural realities of being an immigrant in a cash economy and painting it as an incredibly fraudulent activity that it made everybody look bad in this process.”
Ultimately, the Sung family was exonerated. The bank continues to operate, providing help and support to many who live within that cultural bubble in Chinatown.
The movie is available to stream now in the U.S. on Amazon Prime. Its makers are hoping that this David & Goliath-type story that saw a small family take on the might of the government and its lawyers will triumph again: this time, with a win at the Oscars on March 4.