Abacus: The Small Chinatown Bank That Paid a High Price

Following the 2008 mortgage crisis, none of the biggest financial institutions in the U.S. were brought to criminal court. But that wasn't the case for a small, family-owned bank in New York's Chinatown. To date, it's the only bank to be criminally indicted in connection with the 2008 mortgage crisis. (Image:  Frontline/Screenshot)
Following the 2008 mortgage crisis, none of the biggest financial institutions in the U.S. were brought to criminal court. But that wasn't the case for a small, family-owned bank in New York's Chinatown. To date, it's the only bank to be criminally indicted in connection with the 2008 mortgage crisis. (Image: Frontline/Screenshot)

Following the 2008 U.S. mortgage crisis, which led to a $700 billion government bailout, the biggest financial institutions in the country were given a light tap on the wrist in fines and penalties. None were brought to criminal court. But that wasn’t the case for a small, family-owned bank tucked inside Chinatown in New York City.

In 2012, Abacus Federal Savings Bank (國寶銀行) was indicted on charges of fraud in relation to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of mortgages that had been sold to Fannie Mae from 2005 to 2010. It’s the only bank to be indicted in connection to the 2008 crisis.

A documentary about the case, entitled Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, takes an absorbing look at the big story of a little bank.

The official trailer of the documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail:

The documentary, which recently premiered on PBS’s Frontline television series, tells the story of Thomas Sung and the financial institution he founded — the first Chinese-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown. Loans from the small bank to first-generation immigrants (Sung is from Shanghai) helped build the community, a population that might otherwise have been overlooked by big lenders or too intimidated to navigate the American banking system.

Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself), the documentary contends that Sung and his American-born daughters, who now run the bank, were unfairly targeted by New York County D.A., Cyrus Vance Jr.

Prosecutors in the D.A. office needed to indict someone following the subprime mortgage meltdown, when U.S. banks issued $4.8 trillion worth of fraudulent loans. Those loans, among other factors, led to the financial meltdown of 2008 and the devastating recession. And while Abacus did not meet the criteria of being too big to fail, prosecutors concluded that it was small enough to jail.

James spent the length of the three-month trial following the Sung family and trying to clear their name. (Image: Frontline/Screenshot)

The office of the district attorney of the county of New York concluded that Abacus Federal Savings Bank (國寶銀行) was small enough to jail. The indictment and subsequent trial forced the Sung family to defend itself and it’s bank legacy over the course of a five-year legal battle. (Image: Frontline/Screenshot)

The case of Abacus, a reliable institution for thousands of Chinese immigrants, was a shock for many in the community, while for the rest of the country, the news seemed to tell a story of a dishonest bank that was finally getting its comeuppance.

The bank’s surprising decision to fight the charges led to an epic David-versus-Goliath court battle that revealed how weak the case was against Abacus. James spent the length of the concluding three-month trial following the Sung family as they tried to clear their name (the charges were finally dismissed in 2015).

The documentary achieves depth because it’s about so much more than a court case, a family, or the mortgage crisis: it’s a unique portrait of how an iconic community, New York City’s Chinatown, is a nation unto itself, with its own rules and traditions, which has persisted, sometimes successfully and yet with significant costs. (Image: Frontline/Screenshot)

The documentary achieves depth because it’s about so much more than a court case, a family, or the mortgage crisis. (Image: Frontline/Screenshot)

The documentary achieves depth because it’s about so much more than a court case, a family, or the mortgage crisis; rather, it’s a unique portrait of how an iconic community, New York City’s Chinatown, is a nation unto itself, with its own rules and traditions.

Taiwanese American film director Justin Lin (Fast & Furious, Star Trek Beyond) recently announced the production of a feature length film based on the documentary. Lin will produce the film, while Steve James will serve as executive producer.

The entire documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, is available here for viewing, courtesy of PBS’s Frontline.

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