Sung ’90 Reflects on Fighting Injustice in New Documentary

Jill Sung ’90, center, with her sister Vera and father, the founder of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, in a still from the new documentary by Steven James, which will air on PBS Frontline Sept. 12. The film chronicles the saga of the only U.S. bank indicted for mortgage fraud related to the 2008 financial crisis.

On Sept.12 (check local listings), Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline will broadcast Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a new documentary by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) that tells the story of the only U.S. bank to be criminally charged in connection with the 2008 financial crisis. That bank is Abacus Federal Savings Bank, located in New York City’s Chinatown and founded in 1984 by Thomas Sung, an immigration lawyer and an immigrant himself, who saw the need for this within the insular community. Sung and his wife are the parents of four daughters—three lawyers and one medical doctor—including two affiliated with the bank: Jill Sung ’90, president and CEO of Abacus, and her elder sister Vera, who sits on the board.

The events that are chronicled were set in motion when the Sungs discovered that one of their loan officers was taking money from borrowers in order to create false loan documents. The Sungs immediately fired him, referred the matter to their regulator, and reported the incident to the police. Yet instead of prosecuting that individual, the district attorney’s office turned their scrutiny on the bank’s officers and employees. In an unprecedented turn of events, 18 Abacus employees were placed under arrest and the press was offered a shocking photo-op: 10 of these employees were “handcuffed to a chain and paraded down the hallway in the Criminal Court building in a staged perp-walk before the national news media like a herd of slaves being led to the auction block,” as Thomas Sung later described that event in his statement to the public after Abacus was found innocent of wrongdoing.

Before that day of vindication, however, the legal proceedings, machinations, and trial sprawled over five long, intense years. James was there to film key moments and conduct interviews, including one with New York City District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who led the prosecution.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, was an award-winner on the independent film circuit, including the audience award at the 2017 San Diego Asian Film Festival Showcase, and the audience award for best documentary at the 2107 Sarasota Film Festival. Now, two years after the jury trial found the bank not guilty of mortgage fraud and other charges, and as the film is screening nationally and soon to air on national public television, Jill Sung ’90 finds that people are reaching out to share their story of “David and Goliath” legal battles or other stories that feel rife with discrimination. With this, also, she is in a position to advocate for values she holds dear—choice and democracy. Last week, she spoke with News@Wesleyan about the making of the documentary and the legal process.

Q: How did you and your family decide to open up this most challenging part of your life to a documentarian’s camera?
Jill Sung: I’m a very private person, but one of the producers, Mark Mitten, is a friend of my older sister Vera’s, and he insisted this should be documented. He had the connection to Steve James, who, when he met us, told us, “I want to do this.” I’d known Steve by reputation; I’d seen Hoop Dreams when it first came out and had told myself then, “This genre is something I need to be aware of.” So those two things—trust from knowing one of the creators and respect for their work—were important in our decision.

Q. Did they capture the points you would have wanted them to show?
JS: I don’t think you can capture what happened to us in an hour and a half—but in that block of time, Steve James really shared the spirit of our experience, in a film that was more than we expected. We’ve watched it, now, multiple times. Every time, there’s something new we see in it.

Q: Watching it several times—isn’t that like reliving it?
JS: For me—no, because I’m a pretty good compartmentalizer. I see it and think, “Is that me?” I can’t believe I actually went through this!” It gives me a different perspective; I see how a third party would hear what my sister and I were saying—and I see how these moments fit into the whole of the storytelling And then there’s my mother. She is what Steve calls “a gift from the documentary gods”; she’s actually quite funny. The family dynamics are a big part of the film.

Q: In today’s climate, are you getting support?
JS: We have been really appreciative of the response we’ve received. People have e-mailed us, either saying, “We really support you,” or “Something happened to me; I want to share it.”

However, the fact that winning our case is more of an aberration than the norm—especially in the AAPI community—that is concerning. That’s not the spirit of what American is, being surprised that when you took the stand, you actually won. But that’s been the reaction.

Q: What do you think were the factors that helped justice prevail?
JS: We were extremely equipped—and I’m not talking in financial terms, but in knowledge. My family has four lawyers—two worked in criminal justice, one in the DA’s office. We were uniquely prepared.

We also had the will to fight—and our united family was key. When one of us would go through periods of self-doubt—Why am I doing this? Is it really going to be worth it?—our family was there to say “Snap out of it! We have to do this!”

Then, each one of us has a strong group of friends. I knew people in banking and law enforcement, who said, “Jill, this is ridiculous; I can’t believe you’re going through this.”

And our education was invaluable. When I was at Wesleyan, I came into an understanding of my identity as an Asian American, of Asian American empowerment, and the value of diversity. When we were picking the jury, our lawyers were saying, “You should look for this sort of person,” but we were saying, “For whatever you’re looking for, we really think we’ll find it in a diverse jury.”

Q: One of the stressors for you and your sisters must have been watching your parents’ pain—is that how it was?
JS: My father is a key figure in our community and to be accused of dishonesty was horrible. And the aging factor: my mother yells at my father on the phone, “You’re getting old.” And it’s true; my sisters and I talked about that. We watched them get old.

However, my mother’s focus is, “My daughters lost so much time; they could have done so much more in those five years.” It was a long time. Everyone in the family can see that in each other.

Each of us had personal challenges. In the film, you’ll see my younger sister Chanterelle get very emotional; she wondered if she really believed in the judicial system of which she was a part. And my sister Vera takes things a little more personally than I do. I worried about my children and how to keep this stress separate from my core family.

Q: But you did win. Is there any redemption in that?
JS: The community has been appreciative. But in terms of redemption, I think each person in my family would have a different take on that.

I said this in the film: “My father didn’t start the bank so we could win a criminal prosecution case. That was not our intent.” Our intent was to serve our mission, to provide financial support in the community; to offer loans to people to set up businesses, buy homes, but we had to stop that during this period. Imagine how many more people we could have helped.

For me, I view time as the most important thing in life. It’s very hard to know a feeling of redemption when you’ve lost five years–six years—of your lifetime. I had given birth to my son in 2009, and this happened at the end of 2009, so for the first six years of his life, in those key moments of his early childhood, I was like, “Oh, that’s nice, but I have to go to work.”

So in terms of redemption, I think time will tell. Many people who heard about the case in the press never knew that we won. The people who were in the chain gang, our former employees? Those people still can’t get jobs and the case against them was dismissed. So where’s the redemption there?

One of these people, an older lady, wanted to go back to Hong Kong to visit before her mother died, but they’d taken her passport while she was arrested. Her mother passed away before she was free to go. So, you ask yourself, where’s redemption for her?

For me, the answer is very dark.

I know it was very important that we fought the charges and that we won. Sometimes I feel it was fate; the challenge was given to us because we had the resources to win. But I think of all these individuals who were affected, and I don’t know.

Q: What will you do going forward?
JS: When people ask me that, I say, “Well, I’m going to turn this on you. What are you going to do?” I work for a small community bank, that’s my credo. I’m concerned about consumers not having choices. The financial system is important. If you don’t have a choice about where you put your money, then we’re all going to be part of that huge infrastructure that affects peoples lives.

You go grocery shopping, and you go to Whole Foods, but now Whole Foods is part of Amazon, so, okay, maybe you’ll buy that carton of milk down the street, at the real local grocery. That’s what we need more people to do, even in the city. But it’s not convenient. Still, you have to make that extra trip or we’re all going to end up with limited choices.

So that’s why we did this: You have to show that the calculus is on our side—the big guys will lose time and money if they think they can pick on little institutions. In the meantime, you’ll lose a lot yourself. But you made that choice to be independent, so you can’t give up. You’ve made that choice not to give a piece of yourself to them.