Manhattan's 92-Year-Old Kung Fu Master Is Simply the Best
When LES-based artist Laura Nova met Poa Shen, a woman who practices and teaches her form of kung fu in Nova's neighborhood, the pair became instant collaborators.
Photos courtesy of the subject
Across the country, women and female-identifying artists are organizing art protests to raise money for organizations like Planned Parenthood and plant the seeds of resistance against Trump's anti-women agenda. After New York-based artist Laura Nova caught wind of the Nasty Woman exhibition in Queens, she enthusiastically pitched a photograph of her 92-year-old neighbor and collaborator, the kung fu master Poa Shen, or Boyee, who practices and teaches on the Lower East Side, Nova's neighborhood. The pair met while Nova was conducting her "Moving Stories" project, an interactive walking tour for senior citizens that integrates storytelling, exercise, and memory.
Because of the overwhelming number of performance proposals for the show, Nova wasn't able to secure space for a performance with Poa. So she contributed a photograph of Poa wearing a powder blue tracksuit and demonstrating one of the 36 postures in her practice. It was so striking I had to know more. I spoke with Nova about her friendship with Poa, collective memory, and about the threats facing the vibrant Lower East Side community both she and Poa call home.
BROADLY: Can you share some background on the "Moving Stories" project and how it came about?
Laura Nova: I've lived on the LES for the last 13 years and have been working in my community for much of that time, doing projects like "Feed Me A Story," a video cookbook centered on my neighbors' personal stories.
In 2015, I noticed that there were all these tour guides coming through our neighborhood, supposedly the experts in food, architecture, and Jewish history. I kept thinking, Who are these people? They don't live here. So I sat down with a neighbor of mine and told him I wanted to do location-based stories with fitness tied in. Since seniors are the true experts [on the neighborhood], I wanted to work with them.
Creating community-based public work that is intergenerational is important to me. The community actually is the expert, and the people that use the work become not just users but active makers themselves.
How did you first meet Poa?
I was leading a walking group, and Poa stumbled upon us and joined in. She speaks Cantonese and Mandarin so she didn't participate in the storytelling workshops that I coordinated with The Moth, but later, I found a translator, met with Poa individually, and developed a relationship. Now we train together and go for dim sum sometimes.
After working on "Moving Stories," I approached her with an idea to make educational exercise posters about Luk Tung Kuen, the form of kung fu that she practices, and educational exercise posters showing the moves.
I'm so curious about her classes. Where does she teach and how do workshops normally run?
She used to teach groups of seniors at Little Flower Park on the LES and in Chinatown near Chatham Square. She won't work for money, but if it's part of an organized workshop, she'll ask for donations to be given to the Educational Alliance (EA). (She lives in senior housing that's attached to the EA on East Broadway.) Luk Tung Kuen translates to "six circulation fists," so there are 36 postures in total. It's not a fighting practice; the philosophy is to promote a health and well-being practice that helps with the circulatory system.
Poa's so passionate about teaching her art form; it strikes me that there's this powerful woman whose strength and drive to teach defy her age. I wanted to capture her forceful and indomitable spirit. She's such a small person with amazing flexibility. I think that the photos speak without words; her language is expressed through each physical movement.
What kinds of visual references—fine art, comics, etc.—did you have in mind when you photographed her?
I mean, she is Wonder Woman. She's 92 and can touch her toes, kick up, and balance. I was thinking of superheroes that are very poppy in color. What I recall from the Linda Evans series, which was way before my time, is that it was as much about her physical strength as it was about her mental fortitude.
She's wearing an amazing powder blue tracksuit in the photo. Is that her own, or did you her?
She showed me pink, blue, and white jumpsuits; I asked her to wear the blue one, because I thought the color would pop against the really reduced, white background in my backlit studio. I wanted to emphasize her super human-ness and capture her like a superhero action figure.
She always dresses, by the way, beautifully—very tailored, with jewelry, everything. So in the documentary video, she dressed up, in a sense, for the video.
How did she react to these photos?
She doesn't always like the photos, and she didn't like the one [in the Nasty Woman show] because her mouth is open. She was counting in Chinese and calling out the names of the poses. I'm excited to revisit the photographs with Poa and the translator to see what she has to say, philosophy-wise, about each movement. I might add text to the photos to note her feelings and the meanings behind the postures.
Why did you pick this photo, specifically, for the Nasty Woman show?
I thought it was well suited for the mission of the exhibition, because, you know, is she a "nasty woman"? I thought she repesented some of the double meanings of "nasty woman," since she's a wise elder but also fierce and physically active. Initially I proposed to have Poa actually perform, teach, and do a routine at the opening, but the organizers had too many performances lined up already.
I know that predatory real estate developers are always a concern for historic neighborhoods, especially ones with significant immigrant communities like the LES and Chinatown. What are the biggest issues that Poa and her neighbors face?
There's a lot of major development going on in the neighborhood, which is why I got involved with storytelling and community-based work. The seniors are either dying or are actually going to be pushed out. There's a big housing complex going up on Delancey Street and three mega-tower luxury buildings going up on South Street and another luxury condo on East Broadway. There's a real shift in this area; the infrastructure is going to change, and the influx of immigrants living here is going to change with it.
There's a nursing home nearby on East Broadway that was landmarked and then it was sold to developers. Because of zoning laws, they can erect buildings on both sides of it, but they need to buy the air rights to build them even higher. The mega-towers on South Street are going up right in front of housing projects, so that people who've lived in the neighborhood for 30, 40, 50 years will not just have their views obstructed, but will have reduced access to natural light and clean air. It's really sad.
Sustaining the neighborhood has always been part of these story-based projects I've been doing, to give people a voice that wouldn't necessarily have one otherwise. Poa, like many of her neighbors, has an active community board, but her voice isn't necessarily heard. I'm trying to amplify those voices.