The novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club plays in the 1950s in San Francisco and tells the story of seventeen-year-old teenager Lily Hu, who lives with her Chinese American family in Chinatown. Lily lives the life of a ‘good Chinese daughter’: she dresses in clothes her mother picks out for her, she has good grades at school and goes to church every Sunday with her family. She dreams of majoring in math, becoming a rocket scientist and learning about space, just like her aunt Judy did. As Lily slowly discovers her attraction towards women and realizes lesbians exist, she finds herself ashamed and conflicted within herself. Nevertheless, she cannot stop these feelings and develops a strong curiosity to explore her own sexuality and the queer scene in San Francisco.
Malinda Lo embeds the story of Lily and her family into the political situation during the fifties in the United States, and further explores Lily’s parents’ background through flashbacks to the thirties in the context of the U.S. and China. Despite having an American citizenship, Lily’s family is facing the fear of deportation in 1954 during the ‘Red Scare’ as her father’s citizenship papers are taken away from the FBI. Malinda Lo contextualizes this into the ‘paranoid crusade against Communist infiltration’ by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1950; McCarthyism also inspired the ‘Lavender Scare’, in which homosexuality was linked with communism and resulted in queer people losing their government jobs.
Lily’s everyday life circulates around finishing her last year of school and spending time with her Chinatown friends’ group, which slowly starts to change when she meets Kathleen Miller, with whom she finds herself in advanced math class. Their shared interest in airplanes, space and rockets brings them together and soon the topic of the Telegraph Club comes up – a queer bar where male impersonator Tommy Andrews cross-dresses and sings to the women in the audience. Lily and Kath are planning to secretly go to the club together, while Lily starts to feel the new romantic tension in between them, which makes her urgently want to ask Kath whether she is attracted to women too.
Malinda Lo’s fictional Telegraph Club is inspired by bars that existed during the 1950s in San Francisco, where queer-coded shows were performed. Although homosexuality was considered as a psychological disorder until 1987 and cross-dressing in public was not allowed in San Francisco until 1974, cross-gender impersonation was accepted on stage in theater. It was not necessarily queer-coded and differed from how drag is understood nowadays. Bars like the Telegraph Club were meeting points of San Francisco’s predominantly white lesbian community, where terms such as butch and femme were used to describe gender expressions, which is also the only terminology available to Lily besides the binary of men and women.
Lily experiences many racist and offensive comments in the Telegraph Club, where she is the only Chinese American; some refer to her as “China doll” or other insults and ask her whether she speaks English. Although Lily feels often uncomfortable, the Telegraph Club seems to her as the only escape from every day’s heteronormative reality, which makes her remain polite or silent in racist situations. Lily’s experience in the Telegraph Club highlights the necessity of creating and maintaining safe, inclusive, and intersectional queer spaces in our societies. (For further reading on queer safe spaces, view Elena Schaetz’ article “The Importance of Queer Safe Spaces in Times of Corona” in GAMSzine No. 2.)
Lily and Kath start spending more and more time together, whether during school breaks, on their way home or visiting the Telegraph Club together multiple times. For Lily, these new experiences of meeting people like her, seeing women kiss for the first time, drinking alcohol and falling in love are eye-opening. Malinda Lo succeeds at telling Lily’s falling in love in all its lightness, curiosity and shyness throughout her first kiss, first intimate experiences and discovering what romantic love feels like to her.
Contrasting to the light and sweet love story entailed in this novel, Lily’s struggle and identity crisis are captured in the clash of seemingly opposites: her family’s traditions, values and expectations of her being a ‘good Chinese daughter’ on the one hand, and on the other hand her discovery of her lesbian sexuality. Lily’s struggle intensifies, once the Telegraph Club gets raided by the police in search of prohibited homosexual acts in 1954, during which Kath disappears in the chaos and panic. As Lily is trying to find Kath desperately, she is caught in a position of having to decide whether she keeps pleasing her family by lying and hiding who she is, or saying the truth and risking it all.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a remarkable novel which gives insights to the political context of queerness, homophobia, anti-Asian racism and the struggle of Chinese Americans in light of the Red Scare during the 1950s in America. Furthermore, aspects of language are included through Cantonese, Mandarin, Chinglish and English conversations, depending on who Lily speaks with. Rather irritating, however, seems the choice of using terms about race from the 1950s throughout the novel, which are nowadays offensive and outdated; nonetheless they are historically accurate, as intended by Malinda Lo – whether necessary in narrating the storyline remains debatable. Malinda Lo’s story of Lily is inspired by books featuring history of queer BIPOC and Asian American history, which oftentimes fall too short and make this novel even more important. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a thrilling novel which inspires through Lily’s willingness to risk everything for her love and shows us how powerful the courage to love can be.
Malinda Lo was born in 1974 in Guangzhou, China, and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was a child. She studied Economics and Chinese Studies in her B.A. and did a master’s degree in East Asian Studies at Harvard University, and a second master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology at Stanford University. With her novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club, published in 2021,she became New York Times bestselling author and won the National Book Award, the Stonewall Book Award and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature.
About the author:
Lara Kauter is a student of Geographical Development Research (M.Sc.) at Freie Universität Berlin. She holds a bachelor degree in Area Studies Asia/Africa from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her research interests focus on critical development research, global inequalities, protest movements and gender studies.