One of the pleasures of my work is that I get to visit New York to do on-site research for my Esther Diamond fantasy series.
Esther Diamond is a struggling actress who gets involved in mystical misadventures while pursuing her career, befriending various eccentric New Yorkers, falling in love with a skeptical cop, and saving her city from Evil. Each novel in the series focuses on a different supernatural subject (doppelgangers, vampires, zombies) and a different aspect of the city (Little Italy, Harlem, the West Village, New York's subterranean tunnels).
The series' sixth book, The Misfortune Cookie, was released a couple of weeks ago. It's set in New York's Chinatown during Chinese New Year, which is the most important traditional holiday in Chinese culture. The traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, which is why the date changes every year (in terms of our solar calendar); the event typically occurs in January or February. Although we tend to think of it as taking place on the day of the famous Chinatown parades in New York and San Francisco, it's actually a two week holiday with several major events. For various reasons, I decided to visit New York a week before the parade so that I could attend the Firecracker Festival, which is held on the first day of the lunar new year.
A friend and I arrived in Chinatown a few days before New Year and kicked off our activities by visiting the Eldridge Street Synagogue, built in 1887, which is now a beautifully restored historic landmark and museum (and also still a functioning synagogue, though the congregation is very small). In the late 19th century, this building was in the middle of lower Manhattan's densely-populated neighborhood of Jewish immigrants. Now, however, it sits in the heart of Chinatown—as does the formerly Irish (and then later Italian) Church of the Transfiguration, which offers daily Mass in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Chinatown has grown over the past century from a couple of streets to an area which now includes much of what was once Five Points, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side. I highly recommend the excellent guided tours at the Eldridge Street Synagogue—which hosts the Egg Rolls & Egg Creams Festival every June, celebrating the Jewish and Chinese communities that have contributed so much to New York City's culture.
My editor and publisher, Betsy Wollheim of DAW Books, joined us for a three-hour food tour of Chinatown hosted by the Enthusiastic Gourmet aka Susan Rosenbaum, a culinary professional and licensed NYC tour guide. This outing was very useful in terms of research, and also tremendous fun. In addition to being engaging and (as titled) enthusiastic, Rosenbaum knows her subject matter and the neighborhood well, and so we learned a lot about Chinatown's customs, culture, and characters through learning about its food (via visiting a butcher, a bakery, a produce market, a tofu factory, a sweets shop, and so on).
The only downside of this venture was that I accidentally ate dried cuttlefish, which is not something I will ever do again—ever. Eating a shrimp's head was less disturbing, though it's a gustatory experience that might not suit everyone. And take my advice: never go near a fruit (or any food made thereof) called "durian." I would describe the smell and flavor as a combination of raw sewage, spoiled milk, and a chemistry lab accident.
On the other hand, I fell madly in love with delicately yellow egg custards, steaming fresh bowls of tofu with the consistency of clotted cream, and, in particular, soup dumplings—which are Chinese dumplings filled with flavorful hot broth.
(Needless to say, a fair bit of The Misfortune Cookie wound up focusing on food...)
After I spent several more days exploring Chinatown in ankle-deep ice and slush, the new year kicked off with the Firecracker Festival. Due to city ordinances, real firecrackers (the dangerous kind) can only be used during the festival under controlled circumstances and must be handled by professionals. But I was delighted with the "fake" firecrackers used throughout Chinatown all day long, which make a faint popping noise and shoot out bursts of colorful confetti that gently shower down on the streets and the dense crowds.
Lion dancers are a major part of the Firecracker Festival, and their story encompasses history, customs, and training that are complex and fascinating. They're enormous, colorful, exotic creatures which we might easily mistake for dragons. The elaborate lion costume is shared by two dancers; one wears the massive head, and the other brings up the rear (and also does the navigating when a lion exits a shop or building).
On the first day of the New Year, a few dozen of these lions romp madly through the streets of Chinatown, in pairs and trios, accompanied by their percussionists. They go into all the businesses, where the shopkeepers give them red envelopes of money—and cabbage (yes, cabbage), which the lion "chews up" and "spits out." Being showered by flying bits of cabbage symbolizes abundance in the coming year. Lions meet in the street and jam together, they come into restaurants and greet people like dogs, and they battle fan dancers while firecrackers go off and confetti showers everyone.
As you may have guessed, lion dancers also wound up playing a role in The Misfortune Cookie.
Touring the Big Apple's neighborhoods with local guides, learning about the city's history and culture in person, eating exotic foods, dawdling in neighborhood landmarks and museums, poking around interesting shops and local parks... Well, yes, it's a dirty job—but someone's got to do it! And my dedication to my craft knows no bounds.
Laura Resnick's The Misfortune Cookie is currently available, as are the first five novels in the Esther Diamond series: Disappearing Nightly, Doppelgangster, Unsympathetic Magic, Vamparazzi, and Polterheist. You can find her on the Web at LauraResnick.com.