Volume 79, Number 02 | June 17 - 23, 2009

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Michael Schiller

One of the filmmaker’s collection of photos of Sifu Jai.

Tao master documentary takes chop at gentrification

By Lincoln Anderson

To some, in its later years, it was perhaps just known as “that building with the cage on top.” But hidden inside the former Church of All Nations on East Houston St. was a Taoist temple and martial arts-training facility led by an aphorism-spouting kung fu master known as Sifu Jai.

Michael Schiller, a Lower East Side filmmaker and journalist, documents Sifu Jai and the rise and fall of the temple — and of the building itself — in his new film, “The Tao of 9 Second Ave.”

The Church of All Nations was demolished in 2005 as part of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Plan. Today, on the site where it once stood — across the street from the Whole Foods Market — is a new, luxury apartment building that was developed by AvalonBay. 

To Schiller, the story of Sifu Jai and his temple mirrors that of the East Village’s and Lower East Side’s gentrification.

“In the most obvious way, it’s the story of this place,” Schiller said. “Sifu Jai was the last resident of that building after hundreds and hundreds of people had passed through its doors: First, immigrants...abandoned in the ’70s and ’80s...then taken back for community use.”

Schiller, 35, who documented Sifu Jai and the temple for six years, had close to 100 hours of footage, but edited it down to 35 minutes, feeling that was the right amount for the story he wanted to tell. 

“It was a labor of love,” he said, adding he doubts he’ll ever recoup the money he invested in making the project.

He originally was shooting a dance film in the building in 1996 when someone suggested he should visit the Taoist temple upstairs. He went up and knocked on the double doors with Chinese characters on them, and there entered the mysterious world of Sifu Jai.

The film shows parents and their children doing kung fu in the temple, building up both their bodies and family bonds. A former drug addict talks about how Sifu Jai’s martial arts saved his life and helped him stay clean.

There are shots of Sifu Jai lighting candles, lots of candles (at one point the building had no electricity) — and burning Taoist prayers on pieces of paper on the building’s roof. The kung fu master is shown playing a manic, yet strangely musical, piano solo, and commenting on the fate of the Church of All Nations building and that of the city.

According to Schiller, Sifu Jai, now 47, grew up on Third St. and First Ave., not far from 9 Second Ave. His mother was Chinese born in Thailand and his father half-black and half-Jewish from the Bronx. Sifu Jai grew up speaking Chinese and trained at one of the biggest kung fu schools in Chinatown in the 1970s, and also trained in Hong Kong.
Schiller said he checked out “a lot” of the martial-arts teacher’s story.

“C’mon, he looks crazy,” Schiller admitted, “like a total madman. I’ve done all the due diligence. He definitely is the real deal.”

The film shows Sifu Jai during his eviction in 2002, sitting on the sidewalk with his belongings around him.

After first lamenting that he can’t “frickin’” believe what’s going on in the neighborhood and why new buildings are even needed to replace the perfectly good existing ones, Sifu Jai ultimately resolves, in true Taoist/fatalistic fashion, that “when it’s time to go — go with the flow.” 

The building itself — both physically speaking and its history — is as much, if not more, of a character in the film as Sifu Jai. 

“Visually, I just really fell in love with the building,” Schiller said, “the way the light would come in.”

In doing the documentary, Schiller said he inadvertently ended up becoming a historian of the block.

Before the Church of All Nations — which was a Methodist-run settlement house — was built in 1922, the block bounded by Bowery, Second Ave. and Houston and First Sts. was home to a warren of interconnected buildings known as Germania Hall, famed for its “assembly rooms.” There were gambling rooms and brothels. The infamous bar McGurk’s Suicide Hall was part of the unsavory complex.

“It was Bowery vice central,” Schiller explained.

The Methodists razed most of the seedy structures, though the Mars Bar building still survives from the former dens of iniquity, according to Schiller.

The Church of All Nations offered language classes, dances, social activities and sports, like boxing and baseball.

“It was the social gospel,” Schiller said. “Their underlying goal was conversion. They had Christian services in Yiddish to try to convert the Jews — it was insane. ... But the social mission took over.”

By the mid-’70s, though, the settlement house’s day had waned. There was only a small Methodist contingent still using the building, and a local Puerto Rican group named CUANDO felt it should be turned over to the larger community. Schiller said he found out much of his information about 9 Second Ave. from this period in an excellent 1975 master’s thesis by a Union Theological Seminary student.

The dissertation recounted how, in 1974, the church’s last pastor wrote, in a fateful journal entry, that he was being pushed out of the building by “a gang called CUANDO.”

Although CUANDO initially had good intentions, Schiller said Sifu Jai and the group had a hostile relationship, that they didn’t keep up the building and tried to evict him. By the end, Sifu Jai was the only one actually maintaining the place, which — save for two artists who worked there — CUANDO had essentially abandoned, the filmmaker said.

“They did run a daycare and rented space to arts groups — but they just sort of evaporated,” Schiller said of CUANDO.

Schiller documents the building’s destruction in wrenching, prolonged shots, with closeups of the faces of women watching the destruction who used to use the building when they were young girls. He said he heard of one of these former neighborhood residents through word of mouth when he stopped in the Liz Christy Garden, and was able to track her down.

“It was so solid,” this woman says in the film, tears in her eyes, as the jackhammers and drills slash and rat-a-tat-tat away at the building, reducing it to a pile of broken bricks.

The documentary also includes a poignant anti-gentrification rap by Baba Israel accompanied by his father, the well-known performance artist/comedian Steven Ben Israel, of Soho, on “beatnik beatbox,” as Schiller put it.

The film closes with Sifu Jai sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park, musing on the subject of “impermanence.” The last shot is of him ambling away across the basketball courts, with a brisk, muscular stride, his back to the camera.

According to Schiller, Sifu Jai is basically “retired,” and has since been bouncing around between a place Upstate and a place in the Bronx — a wandering Taoist, as it were.

Although he was just covering Sifu Jai as a filmmaker and journalist and wasn’t a student of his before, today Schiller is one of only a few people taking kung fu classes with Sifu Jai.

“The Tao of 9 Second Ave.” had its premiere at the New Museum on the Bowery and has been aired on the Discovery Channel. It is currently available on Amazon.com.

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