Opinion: Reviews

“American justice has become American injustice. Superimposed on you.”

Showcased at this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is a documentary directed by Steve James that encapsulates a five-year-long legal battle between the state of New York and Abacus Federal Savings Bank.

Within the first three minutes of the film, the viewer is introduced to the entire plot.

Thomas Sung founded Abacus in 1984 after realizing Chinese immigrants had no access to financial resources such as loans and credits. The family-owned community bank quickly expanded in location and provided accessible resources as it served and uplifted the Chinese community for decades in New York. Eventually, Sung’s daughters Vera and Jill joined their father in his mission to provide the Chinese community with an opportunity to attain the American Dream.

However, Abacus was not immune to greed.

The company underwent two waves of larcenous employees. The first transpired in 2003, where branch manager Carol Lim disappeared with ten million dollars. The second incident occurred in 2009 and had a less forgiving outcome. The Sung family discovered Ken Yu, a loan officer, and several other employees in the loan department had committed fraud by embezzling money from borrowers and falsifying loan documents. The Sungs responded by firing all of the responsible individuals, notifying the proper authorities and pursuing a private investigation. Shortly after their response, the New York District Attorney office involved itself in the case and charged Abacus in 2012 with 184 (later 240) counts of indictments that included mortgage fraud, grand larceny and conspiracy.

The film mastered navigating through narratives with smooth editing and transitions. The incorporation of investigative journalism that occurred during the legal battle provided an insightful and realistic element to the documentary.

The intimate familial scenes between the Sungs were well situated in the film.

The family’s Dim Sum and interview segments, for the most part, portrayed them as dedicated, genuine and humble individuals who just want to see their community succeed. These moments lighten the intense mood from the case, and for the most part, incorporated a fairly balanced perspective to juxtapose the two parties.

Nevertheless, it is evident that the prosecution lacked a definitive case.

The prosecution’s approach seemed to be executed with discrimination in mind. Their entire case was built on speculation that Abacus’ management was well aware of the corruption within their loan department, which seemed likely, but Abacus cooperated and assisted the DA when they first opened the case. However, the prosecution did not end there, for they believed that Abacus had contributed greatly to the 2008 financial crisis.

The latter is a bit far-fetched and hypocritical.  

It became obvious that justice depended on who the offender was. And Abacus was the offender targeted because of its skin color.

The government turned a blind eye on large bank companies when they engaged in fraudulent schemes that blew up and caused the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, the film shows the government bailing out the big bank companies (typically ran by white CEOs) who just had to pay the penalty fees to make the situation go away.

Abacus did not receive the same treatment.

“The DA told us, ‘You have to accept a plea of guilty for felony, plus a fine,’” said Thomas Sung.

The lack of options disregarded by the prosecution raised concerns that the DA’s targeting of Abacus was saturated with prejudice.

In response to these accusations, District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said, “I think the characterizations that this was somehow a cultural bias on the office’s part…entirely misplaced and entirely wrong. We devote an enormous amount of effort into protecting immigrant communities 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 services a South American community or the Indian community. There was nothing different that we did or purposely designed to treat this bank differently.”

Vance highlights community of color banks in his statement, which seems contradictory to what he is saying because he is creating a distinction between privilege in large corporate banks and community banks.

His quick dismissal of discrimination is also inconsistent with the behaviors exercised by the DA office throughout the case.

In the film there is a scene where the convicted employees of Abacus were all handcuffed to a chain and led out of the courtroom by DA investigators. According to interviews from attorneys and investigative journalists, they recall their shock in seeing the fifteen Chinese individuals chained for the first time in their entire career.

The film highlighted more issues within the Chinese American community than just the legal battle.

The cinematography captures culture, conflict and a family’s grit faithful to reality. We see an entire community dependent on the offender–Abacus, to achieve their means of the American Dream and yet, that same community is harassed by the law.

“When we started the bank, it was our motivation to help all the people, all of the immigrants,” said Thomas Sung.

The Sung’s duty to the community never faltered and they persisted and fought for their legacy in court so that they can continue to serve the Chinese community.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” will be in theaters May 19.

Last Saturday, October 26, the James Bridges Theater of UCLA screened The Laundromat, an award-winning documentary on the stigma of mental health problems and its silence within Asian American cultures. Vanessa Yee, graduate from UCLA with a MFA in Production and Directing, started the film project four years ago. The documentary follows the personal stories of her friends who dealt with depression, isolation and the inability to voice their concerns to their friends or family. In a personal submission to Hyphen news magazine (2011), Yee shares what the film sought to explore:

“I was only planning to be the dogged interviewer … in search of an answer to, What does it mean to break your silence? … I talked to three of my friends who had each experienced depression and great loss, but were learning to seek counseling and air their dirty laundry.”

However, in the midst of editing the film, Yee felt something was lacking: “How could I make a documentary about dealing with personal pain and cultural stigma without also asking myself the same questions?” Struggling with the inability to talk about her own depression with her parents, Yee decided to include herself as a subject in the film. As a result of placing herself in a vulnerable position, Yee was able to produce a more intimate and cohesive film.

During her time in college, Yee learned the news of her mother’s pancreatitis and hospitalization. She noticed that her family kept the knowledge of her mother’s condition to themselves. No one outside of their immediate family was aware, and Yee was afraid to tell anyone because no one talked about these things, and there must be a reason behind this silence.

According to Yee’s research, depression isn’t seen or acknowledged to be a real problem by many Asian American families (especially first generation immigrants). A second generation Asian American student at UCLA shares a time when she opened up to her mom about her depression. Her mother brushed off the issue as if it were a matter of choice:

“You’re sad? Just stop being sad.”

This disbelief in mental health problems and the prolonged silence plays a big factor in furthering those affected into a deeper state of isolation and emotional distance from others. Yee chose to explore mental health through an Asian American lens because of the cultural pressures to keep silent. They are not to talk about personal or family problems in order to “keep face” and not shame – or stigmatize – the family. Yet, through the process of filming and the characters sharing their stories with Yee and the camera, the documentary reveals how opening up and sharing these secrets with others can become part of the healing process. Yee’s friends were able to talk about their experiences and the pressures and self-harm that result from trying to protect the reputation of the family.

After the screening, there was a Q&A panel for audience members to ask questions and discuss the implications of the documentary. Carol Miyake, member of the panel and a counselor from Asian American Christian Counseling Service (AACCS), discussed the film’s significance. Miyake states that she believes the film has great potential to open up discussions about mental health and create a more safe and accepting space within Asian American communities. More importantly, she says it is a profound way for family members and professionals to discuss nuances such as generational gaps and shame-based cultures that can lead to mental health problems.

Due to practical reasons such as the length of the film, the documentary is limited in its coverage, lacking a larger array of perspectives. Though the film offers no concrete solution to the problem of silence and mental health, the film does offer various ways to deal with the problem: counseling, finding a supportive community, opening up to the camera, and/or revealing the secret to a family member. In her personal experience, Yee says that her community and network of friends were able to support her through her depression.

Interested in learning more about how to help those in isolation with little support, I raised the question:

“What about people who can’t find a community? Aside from counseling, where can they find support?” I knew a friend who had received peer counseling and even professional counseling, but none of it was effective or beneficial according to him.

Yee replied: “To be honest, I just got really lucky to find this community and support.”

I knew it was a hard question, one that hadn’t been looked into or researched enough. Yet, the documentary is a big step in opening the door for more dialogue and exploration on the issues of silence and the near absence of resources addressing the root of mental health problems. Counseling continues to be the immediate and favored solution, or coping mechanism, to alleviate those who experience depression and related mental issues.

Although the documentary is unable to capture everyone’s stories, Yee is currently working on an interactive website (atthelaundromat.com) for people to form a community and have a place to share their ‘dirty laundry’ secrets and stories. Yee states her intention for the website is “to create a safe place for the Asian American community to speak on why we are like this, [and to] come clean about the secrets and shame we hide in the Asian American community.”

Interested in watching the documentary? You can follow the film’s production blog for news of upcoming screenings: http://thelaundromatdocjourney.wordpress.com/.

Without further ado, here’s the trailer:

Between wrapping up my breathtaking summer at Startup UCLA and the launch of SelfWe, moving, and diving into the deep end of the LSAT pool, it’s been a while. For that I am sorry. But while I was away, I did not stop eating ramen. After all, ramen is a perfect antidote to the anxiety produced by applying to law school. So without further ado, today we’ll be telling the story of What’s Up Men, a ramen restaurant that’s only one-year-old near in Fullerton, CA.

 

Ambiance: 3/5

 

The location is barely a year old so much of the furniture was unblemished. The two issues I had were the floor layout of the tables and the staff’s work area.

 

With regards to the tables, their layout did not appear to have any rhyme or reason thereby inefficiently using space. The ratio of tables for two and tables for four disproportionately favored the latter. This would force patrons on a date to sit at the bar, which no way to be having a date.

 

The staff’s work area and by this I mean, the area with which utensils, napkins, etc. are stored is at the end of the bar, facing the patrons. This should really be hidden in the back because it was like throbbing eyesore that also limited seating.

 

Fixing those two things would strongly improve the aesthetics of the place.

 

Service: 5/5

 

Service was satisfactory and friendly. It was at times a bit slow, though was probably caused by a large weekend dinner crowd than by inattentiveness.

 

Presentation: 4/5

 

I loved that the ramen was presented in a red bowl. The black garlic oil floating on the surface, the mound of chili paste, and the red bowl all made of a visually stimulating presenting. It was almost as if it were warning the diner that it was not to be trifled with.

 

Accoutrements: 5/5

 

This is a new section I’m adding to my Rameter. It essentially, Accoutrements are those ingredients in a bowl of ramen that aren’t the noodles or the broth. For example, ingredients in this category are the slices of pork in your bowl or the kernels of corn.

 

My dish at What’s Up Men had one slide of pork that was delicious. The pork was so soft that it immediately disintegrated once it landed on my tongue. It was a potent package of umami and salt. The hard-boiled egg in this dish was also delicious. It was firm but not overcooked.

 

Broth: 7/10

 

 

 

Noodles: 8/10

 

The noodles were the best part of this dish. They had a firm texture that allowed just enough chewing without tiring my mouth. Furthermore, I thought the noodles did a decent job of allowing the broth to coat its surface. I actually found myself wishing for more noodles.

 

Rameter Score: 32/40

 

Until next time … gochisosama

 

By: Jude Baldo

With the success of The Avengers, media consumers like myself can’t help but look to the future and think, “What next?”  Well, what’s next is Iron Man 3.  But now I’m wondering, what does the comic book industry have anything to do with Asian Americans?

Unfortunately, it has everything to do with Asian Americans.

The Walt Disney Company announced that Iron Man 3 will be co-produced with a Chinese partner, DMG Entertainment.  While this means Iron Man 3 will open overseas first rather than in the States, it may also mean a rehashing of the normal Iron Man plot.

Tony Stark – Man of Steel

In the last two movies, Iron Man fought two robotic villians: Obadiah Stane and Whiplash.  As far as the threequels go, having another robotic villain would be stale and boring.

What are Marvel’s choices?

 

So Marvel has MODOK and AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics).  Unfortunately, an oversized floating head is comical on TV rather than sinister.  Not only that, but the AIM’s suits look like beekeeper suits.  MODOK is definitely out, and probably more suited to an Avengers enemy, rather than merely Iron Man’s.

They have Ezekial Stane, son of Obadiah Stane.  Created by Matt Fraction in 2008, Ezekial Stane is a relatively new edition to the Marvel Universe.  He creates a biosuit, connected to his body, and destroys Stark Industries.  Ezekial’s involvement probably would wreck the self-contained aspect of the Marvel movies, so he is probably out.

The other options that Marvel have are options like the Unicorn, a man with a cone-shaped blaster on his head; Ultron, a robot created by Hank Pym (out because of Hank Pym’s absence in the Avengers team); Titanium Man (another robot); Melter, a man who can melt iron; and perhaps, but highly unlikely, Whitney Frost/Madame Frost, Tony Stark’s sometimes-enemy, sometimes-lover. However, in the interest of maintaining a semblance of realism and credibility, all of these villains are out.  Whitney Frost would disrupt the already delicate balance of Pepper and Tony, so she is also out.

Now, who else does that leave?

The Mandarin.

First appearing in Tales of Suspense #50, the Mandarin’s first incarnation is a wealthy Chinese businessman born in mainland China before the Communist revolution.  At adulthood, he discovers the wondrous powers of Makluan (alien) science and then is suddenly bent on world domination.  He attempts to steal missiles from the American government that were built by Tony Stark, who then takes it upon himself to defeat the Mandarin.  Unable to bring him to justice, they start the long rivalry that has made the Mandarin one of Iron Man’s greatest villains.

The Mandarin from Invincible Iron Man Annual 2010

In his current incarnation, the Mandarin is the son of a (White) prostitute in an opium den with a nameless father. He works up in the opium/prostitute house as he grows up, and then, after finding his mother’s overdosed body, he becomes the new pimp of the brothel house.  Then he’s a loyalist to the Communist government, and not to mention a woman-oppressing man.  All of these unseemly traits he hides with his powers of manipulation and the Makluan rings.

In short, the Mandarin is Fu Manchu 2.0.  For those who have never seen Fu Manchu, have a taste:

Movie poster for the Face of Fu Manchu (1965). From MoviePosterDb.com

He’s an Asian American steretoype, created under the fear of the yellow peril.  The Mandarin could be considered a spin-off of Fu Manchu with his nasty attitude and his “take -over-the-world” modus operandi.

Unfortunately, this means that Asian people will once again be cast in two dual roles: one, the male oppressor, and two, the effeminate helpless subjects.  The Mandarin will have to be defeated by the white savior, Tony Stark, to be freed.  And once again, the leading role of the Asian character will be as a villain.  Not only that, but his powers are given to him by an “alien” race, thus placing him in the perpetual foreigner stereotype.

The story gets worse, however.  The Mandarin is Tony’s recurring villain, considered Tony’s greatest threat.  But Tony wins every time.  Every time the Mandarin tries to win, he loses.  In other words, if the Mandarin stands for foreign power and Tony for the brute force of the United States, the message is loud and clear: Tony Stark, messenger for the United States, wins every time.

That is not to say that Tony Stark cannot be a good or even compelling character.  He has a wealth of mental health issues that have been treated with care and nuance.  But Tony Stark is still a White character, and all of his movies thus far have played off the stereotypes of other racial groups.  This wouldn’t nearly be as big of a problem, however, if there were some good Asian characters, or even other characters of color, to balance out the mix–but unfortunately not.

In the Marvel franchise thus far, we have two ethnic characters–Black Widow, who is for all intents and purposes, another White character–and James “Rhodey” Rhodes–a Black character who is Tony’s sidekick and not even part of the main Avengers roster.  There are no Asian Americans in the Avengers team, and even more problematic, no people of color in the Avengers movie roster at all, and only one woman.  Adding an Asian villain would only continue the poor representation of people of color in the superhero business–a franchise that supposedly represents “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” but features a single demographic and a token Black character.

The Lineup for the Avengers Movie

Iron Man 3 could change that disturbing trend.  Tony Stark has worked with countless people of color in his career, owing to the fact that an international business would involve Tony speaking to all sorts of people, including his long-term girlfriend Rumiko Fujikawa or even Amaedus Cho, Korean kid genius with a coyote pup-in-tow.

Amadeus Cho, with pup-in-tow.

But the announcement of DMG Entertainment’s involvement, along with Disney’s promise to add Asian elements to Iron Man 3 do not bode well for Asian Americans.  The Avengers taught viewers that the only type of hero is the American hero–but if the Mandarin appears in Iron Man 3, the movie might teach us that the best type of villain, too, is the Asian one.

The Mandarin: The Next Face of Asian on TV? Hopefully not.

When Gunnery Sergeant Hartman said, “There is no racial bigotry here,” I knew that Full Metal Jacket would make me want to throw up in disgust.

The film did not disappoint.

Continue reading…

BY CAROL LEE

As an avid reader and loyal fan of all literature captivating and unique, I immediately jumped on The Hunger Games bandwagon at my friends’ and even my 14 year old sister’s insistence. I found Collins’ ideas incredibly fresh and her characters poignant, especially Katniss who strikes me as an empowering female figure. I enjoyed Catching Fire almost as equally as I did the first book, and I didn’t hate Mockingjay (as many do). To me, the progression of the series toward civil war and more political content was necessary and inevitable.

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