The Setting

I wanted to add some historical context for Washington, D.C.,’s Chinatown, the setting for The Geomancer’s Apprentice. For any urban fantasy novel, the setting is as much a feature of the book as its main characters.

Why did I set my book in Chinatown? The credit for that goes to the Friendship Archway, the area’s symbolic gateway. It is said to be one of the largest ceremonial arches outside China.

In my old life as a journalist, I passed by the arch frequently while traveling around D.C. covering news events. It struck a chord. I was drawn to its fantastical outlines and bright colors. I wanted to see it in a book. So here we are.

Chinatown itself occupies the area along H and I Streets and between 5th and 8th Streets Northwest. Chinese immigrants began moving there in the 1930s. The neighborhood is actually D.C.’s second Chinatown. The first Chinatown was situated in the Federal Triangle area. Chinese immigrants living there at the time were forcibly displaced in 1931 to make way for a government office complex.

The new Chinatown grew. At one point there were thousands of Chinese immigrants living there. However, they started moving out to the suburbs after the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Since then, the proportion of the population in the area that is Chinese has grown smaller and smaller.

The Friendship Archway was built only in 1986 to commemorate the friendship between D.C. and Beijing as sister cities. There was some controversy because the local Chinese community wasn’t happy with mainland China’s involvement.

Today, Chinatown hearkens back to its immigrant history with signs in Chinese. Animals from the Chinese zodiac are painted on the crosswalk in front of the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro Station. Some long-established Chinese-American families still own restaurants in the neighborhood. However, the area’s eclectic buildings are more likely to house big-name chain dining establishments and retail stores than Chinese families.

Chinatown’s gentrification and reinvention as a nightlife and entertainment center was further hastened by the addition of the indoor sports stadium that has since been renamed the Capital One Arena. In case you don’t know, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals are the teams that play there. 

Do I know people like Joe, Junie and Noah who actually live in Chinatown? Is there a cafe known as the Laughing Buddha? 

Sadly, they exist only in my imagination.