‘Defending Our Existence’: The Sung Family, From 2017 Film ‘Abacus,’ Talks About Anti-Asian Attacks, COVID

Clockwise from left, from the 2017 documentary "Abacus": Jill Sung, CEO and president of Abacus Federal Savings Bank; Vera Sung, director of the bank; Chanterelle Sung; and Thomas Sung, founder of the bank. The Sungs recently spoke with FRONTLINE about anti-Asian attacks and COVID.

Clockwise from left, from the 2017 documentary "Abacus": Jill Sung, CEO and president of Abacus Federal Savings Bank; Vera Sung, director of the bank; Chanterelle Sung; and Thomas Sung, founder of the bank. The Sungs recently spoke with FRONTLINE about anti-Asian attacks and COVID.

April 9, 2021

Thomas Sung saw this coming. The rise in anti-Asian attacks in the United States was something he warned his daughters about last year, telling them to prepare themselves and buying pepper spray, whistles and tasers for them.

“My prediction always has been that this situation is going to get worse before it gets better,” Sung, founder of Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York City’s Chinatown, said in an interview with FRONTLINE on April 6.

Sung’s bank was the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2017 documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, about the only U.S. bank prosecuted in relation to the 2008 financial crisis, from director Steve James. Sung and three of his daughters — Vera, Jill and Chanterelle, who were all featured in the documentary — spoke to FRONTLINE about what their community has gone through during the pandemic and how they’ve weathered the rise in anti-Asian attacks in the city.

Even with the gear their father gave them to protect themselves, Vera Sung, director at Abacus bank, said she felt a sense of “constant alert” in the city. After a man was stabbed from behind in Chinatown in February, she said she has taken to looking behind her as she walks. When COVID-19 arrived, the family began to worry about everyone’s health. Now, she said, they also worry about everyone’s physical safety.

“It’s been extremely stressful and emotionally draining having to deal with the thought that somebody may actually come and attack you or hurl a racial epithet at you,” Vera said.

“Defend Our Existence”

Recently published analysis has shown that hate crimes targeting Asians and Asian Americans surged in 16 major cities in 2020, even as hate crimes overall dropped 7% in those cities. Hate crimes targeting Asians rose nearly 150% in the cities surveyed and, in New York City, rose from three events in 2019 to 28 in 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University. The analysis noted that the first spike, in March and April 2020, happened “amidst a rise in COVID cases and negative stereotyping of Asians related to the pandemic.”

As an Asian American, Chanterelle Sung, who works as a director of compliance for a pharmaceutical company, has recently come to feel like she has to defend her right to be here. “I’m in my 40s, and it’s like, at this stage in life, being born here, and with parents who immigrated here many, many years ago, and have been fully integrated into our community here, it’s true that we’re now in this place where we have to defend our existence in this country,” she said. “That’s really shocking to me, but it’s nothing new for our community.”

In addition to that feeling, Vera said, “There’s also another truly bizarre thought that’s out there, which is that I also have to try and hide who I am. Because I am an object of dislike, hatred, so I need to hide myself.” She described how a friend suggested wearing a mask, sunglasses and a hat so people couldn’t identify Vera as Asian. “I’ve never ever had to think that way,” she said.

Thomas, who was born in Shanghai and came to America at the age of 16, said he was prepared to face some discrimination because he was an immigrant. He said it must be much harder for his American-born daughters to bear. “They are just as much Americans as any other American.”

The Trial of Abacus

The family considers the case brought against Abacus Federal Savings Bank in 2012, chronicled in the FRONTLINE documentary, as an example of discrimination.

In the documentary, Cyrus Vance Jr., district attorney of New York County, said, “I think the characterizations that this was somehow a cultural bias on the office’s part — entirely misplaced and entirely wrong.” Vance, who is still D.A., continued: “And I felt that our handling of the bank was consistent with how we would have handled the bank if we were investigating a bank that serviced the South American community or the Indian community. There was nothing different that we did or purposefully designed to treat this bank differently.”

Recalling the case now, Jill Sung, president and CEO of the bank, said she feels frustrated when she wonders where the bank would be today, and how many more people they could have helped, if they hadn’t gone through a five-year legal battle that ended in a “not guilty” verdict on all 80 counts.

The family said the case’s emotional toll hasn’t been dulled by time. When they participate in screenings and talks about the documentary, the old feelings of pain and anger resurface. “Maybe, usually, time heals everything, as people say,” Thomas said. “It’s healing very slowly.” He cited a “profound effect” on the family and damage beyond the legal costs.

“My dad is a very glass-half-full kind of person, so he feels that time allows things to heal, but I don’t know if you ever actually heal from this,” Vera said. “You learn to accept it, deal with it and put it in a corner and then extract some good from it.”

Each of the Sungs spoke of translating their experience into becoming stronger advocates for their community. For a while, Chanterelle said, she thought she could separate her career, personal life and success from her identity as an Asian American, but what happened to her family’s bank changed that: “there’s much more of a motivation, a sense of responsibility — I would emphasize that latter aspect. It’s a sense of responsibility that I feel towards the larger community.”

When COVID Arrived

Abacus has remained open throughout the pandemic as an essential business. Jill credited the customers’ awareness of COVID-19 from the earliest days of the crisis with helping the bank prepare.

“A lot of our customers who have relatives in China … they were already aware of it. They also knew from SARS, Avian flu and all these things that happened beforehand that this kind of stuff is not to be taken lightly.” She said customers began asking employees to wear gloves and masks in January 2020, months before New York City shut down businesses in response to the virus.

Jill said the bank also moved quickly to procure personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, and to ensure people could work remotely, come in on alternate days or reduce their hours in the office to decrease the risk of infection. “We were not caught flat-footed.”

In addition to having to move quickly to protect employees and customers during the pandemic, Abacus has also seen the economic effects of COVID on other businesses in the community. The bank has handled 189 Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses, according to Jill.

Some of Chinatown’s small businesses have not been as fortunate. Vera and Jill’s office windows overlook a street where about three-quarters of the storefronts and restaurants are still closed. They weren’t sure if those businesses would be able to recover, they said.

On top of the virus and its economic side effects, Chanterelle noted that “scapegoating and stigmatizing” of Chinese Americans has made an already tough recovery for Chinatown businesses even more difficult.

“I hope that the resilience of the community is such that we will come back,” Thomas said.

A Way Forward

Grappling with their own experiences and with the current atmosphere of rising hate crimes against Asians, the Sungs see education, increased civic engagement in the Asian American community and working with other minority groups as the way to foster real change toward a more accepting society.

Thomas said that, in order to be heard, the Asian American community would need to take a larger role in civic activities, vote, and “assert their rights as citizens in a democratic country.” He also said there are so many people from other communities willing to help, because “there’s so much goodness among Americans.”

“Maybe through uniting with them, we can change that overall system and that overall attitude,” he said.

Jill said more Asian American history should be included in school education, pointing out that some people are not aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, from 1882 to 1943, barred Chinese workers from coming to America and Chinese in the U.S. from becoming American citizens. Vera suggested also highlighting in school curriculums positive contributions Asian Americans have made, from building railroads in the 1860s to fighting for the United States since at least the First World War, despite the discrimination they faced.

“I get really worried about these hate crimes because hate breeds hate,” Vera said. “We have to be so careful not to fuel that or fan that, and really show solidarity.”

Watch Abacus: Small Enough to Jail in its entirety, below. 

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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