George Bailey in real world - A Chinese American who inspired documentary on legal discrimination

Sung's story has so much resemblance to the 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life" and its beloved main character


Xinhua February 26, 2018
Vera Sung, Jill Sung, and Thomas Sung. PHOTO COURTESY: KARTEMQUIN FILMS

NEW YORK: It is rare to see a single lawsuit spotlight David vs Goliath, potential discrimination, and financial crisis altogether, on top of being five years in time and 10 million US dollars in cost.

But Thomas Sung's Chinatown Abacus bank vs New York Manhattan District Attorney is exactly like that.

With the documentary of the lawsuit - Abacus: Small Enough to Jail - nominated for Oscar, Sung's story got more attention across the globe.

Sung, 83-year-old, laughed warmly at the first question as being interviewed by Xinhua by phone: "Chinese or English? Whichever suits you."

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To bring them to court is one thing, to chain them up in handcuffs is another

Sung came to the United States at 16 and earned degrees in economics and law before going into real-estate investment. He was an immigration lawyer before he funded Abacus Federal Reserve Bank in 1984 in Manhattan's Chinatown.

The Abacus' goal is to serve the Chinese immigrant community, who had no place to get a loan to buy houses, start up small businesses, and build a family.

Sung's story has so much resemblance to the 1946 classics film "It's a Wonderful Life" and the beloved character George Bailey.

Just like Bailey's Building and Loan in Bedford Falls, Abacus has always been a small bank. Growing over the years to six branches, it is nothing compared to those on the Wall Street.

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So not many outside the Chinese community knew about Abacus, until it became the only US bank ever indicted for mortgage fraud in the 2008 financial crisis, and 13 of its employees were handcuffed, chained up, and escorted through a hallway in the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in a staged perp-walk before the national news media in May 2012.

Sung still felt angry as he recalled that episode.

"To bring them to court is one thing; to chain them up in handcuffs is another," he told Xinhua.

Many journalists and lawyers observed that nothing like that had happened before, not to any other minorities like African Americans.

"I was very much offended," Sung said, "This is discrimination."

Looking back, Sung said the Manhattan District Attorney's (DA) office probably wanted to convict Abacus for fraud, as a way to threaten the big banks and fine them more.

Sung said that in banking, reputation is very important; no bank wants to get involved in civil or criminal cases like fraud.

In Chinese idioms, it's called to kill a chicken to terrify the monkeys; in other words, it's small enough to jail, too big to fail, Sung added.

You cannot single out Chinese and say they are bad

Abacus became the only US financial institution to be indicted in the wake of the financial crisis.

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The DA's choice of Abacus itself was odd, as many observers pointed out. With 300 million dollars in assets, Abacus made only plain-vanilla housing loans requiring down payments of at least 20 per cent.

It never offered subprime residential mortgages. Nor did the bank dabble in mortgage derivatives - the complex financial instruments that blew up in the housing crisis and caused so many banks to require bailouts.

However, the DA office probably shouldn't have picked on Abacus to set an example - if Sung were right about its plan.

Abacus and the Sung family are not an easy target at all. At the age of 83, Sung still explains the complicated legal process clearly, speaking with clarity and confidence that only a lawyer has.

Both Jill Sung and Vera Sung, daughters of Sung who serve as the CEO and director of Abacus respectively, had graduated from law schools. It was Vera Sung who caught one employee in the middle of fabricating loan application.

Sung said the lawsuit against Abacus had more implications. "It threatened the community as a whole. It attacked the Chinese way of conducting business."

Living a culture based on cash transactions, immigrants in Chinatown usually lack credit history. But running successful businesses like full-house restaurants, they regularly earn enough money in cash for Abacus to give them loans.

In fact, Sung said, not just the Chinese, all immigrants lean heavily on cash. "You can't single out Chinese and say they are bad."

For many, the lawsuit has become a quest to seek a voice for the minority, not just for the innocent. For Sung, although he understood from the beginning the government had much more resources than civilians, he never thought of giving up. "I'm willing to sacrifice and fight. It is a mission always in mind."

I believe in the US system but it needs true reform

Every year, Sung and his wife spend winter in the southernmost state of Florida in the continental United States. But in 2015, they didn't go.

It was about time for the lawsuit to wrap up.

Back then, no one had 100 per cent of confidence that the Sung family could win. After all, there were more than 200 items of indictments, and Abacus had to be "Not Guilty" for every one of them.

On June 4, 2015, after several rounds of discussions and delays, the jury finally decided Abacus is not guilty. When Sung read the daily paper the next day, as shown in the documentary film, he almost cried.

Despite the verdict, the case exacted Sung and his family a heavy cost.

"We lost a lot of business opportunities because of this investigation and trial," Sung said, "And defending this case cost us about 10 million dollars."

Some Americans tend to criticize other countries' legal systems, "but look at the United States," Sung said, "The DA system, for example, needs real changes, It didn't have third-party supervision."

After the release of the documentary, many Chinese Americans who used to be treated unfairly called up Sung to express their gratitude, according to Sung. The case is included in America's law school curriculum too.

"I believe in the US system, but it needs true reform," Sung said.

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