Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a multi-award winning young adult novel that takes on several heavy topics and does so admirably. Set in early 1950’s San Francisco, the story’s protagonist Lily Hu is a teenager with big dreams. Yet she faces a number of formidable obstacles related to her race, sex and sexual identity. Through Lily, Malinda Lo shows the reader how dangerous it was to be Chinese and a lesbian when the American public was hyper vigilant against communists and “sexual deviants.”
Lily and her best friend Shirley are Chinese American girls living in the Chinatown section of San Francisco. Chinatown is a close knit community where it seems that everyone knows everyone else and knows their business, too. On one hand it can feel like a safe and protective community, but on the other, it can feel stifling and inhibiting. As the girls enter their final year of high school, their friendship is put to the test. Shirley is an extrovert who enjoys dressing up, going out, dating and getting attention. She is determined to win the Miss Chinatown crown and maybe use it as a ticket to get out of Chinatown. Lily is quiet and reserved, and she is an excellent student. Lily excels at math and science, enjoys science fiction and plans to attend college. Her dreams revolve around rockets and space travel, making her a bit of an oddball at their high school until she meets Kath, a fellow math/science nerd, in their advanced math class. Kath, who is Italian American, dreams of becoming a pilot. She and Lily hit it off, much to Shirley’s annoyance. What Lily discovers though is that she and Kath have more in common than math. Lily has come to the realization that she is not attracted to boys at all, and when she sees a newspaper ad for a male impersonator named Tommy Andrews, Lily learns that Kath not only shares that interest but knows how to get them into the club where Tommy performs — the Telegraph Club.
As Malinda Lo spins Lily’s story, we learn about the American fear of communism that seems to focus special attention on the Chinese American community due to China’s recent fall to communism. “Suspicious activity” such as involvement in political clubs quickly attracts the attention of the FBI, and when Lily’s father, who is a doctor, treats a young Chinese man suspected of communist ties, the FBI threatens Dr. Hu unless he outs the young man. While this story is fictional, Lo brings in real history to show how easily this was done: Dr. Hsueshen Tsien, a Chinese scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California was deported back to China in 1955 under suspicion of being a communist even though he had worked for the US military during the war. Meanwhile, the known Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun was promoted to run NASA. Lily’s mother understands that the safety of her family depends on their faultless behavior and appearance of respectability even (or perhaps especially) in the face of overt anti-Asian distrust and hatred.
Lily’s realization that she is lesbian and her budding romance with Kath further complicate her family’s situation. Homosexuality was considered a perversion, and no respectable family would admit to having a member who was gay. Lily speaks to no one — not her family, not Shirley — about her sexual identity because she knows they will not accept it. She and Kath get fake IDs and sneak out to the Telegraph Club at night to drink, watch Tommy Andrews and meet other women like themselves. Of course, Lily is playing with fire; there is always the chance that her family will catch her coming home late or, even worse, the chance of a police raid on the club. In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Lo provides a lot of very useful and informative information about the 1950s, politics, race issues, and the treatment of gays/lesbians.
As we watch Lily’s senior year and her relationship with Kath progress, we also learn more about Lily’s mother and her Aunt Judy, who is a “computer” at the Jet Propulsion Lab and something of a mentor to Lily. Aunt Judy is one of my favorite characters because she is brilliant and successful in a field dominated by men. She also struggles with the matter of motherhood, which she is supposed to want, and her career, which is what she really wants.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a real slice of 1950’s life but not the one many of us have been fed over the years. As I read, I worried about Lily and Kath and what was going to happen to them. Being young women and wanting to break into male dominated fields in the 1950s would already be tough; being Chinese American, being a lesbian, and wanting to be able to love someone without hiding it add a dimension of danger that is hard for many of us to imagine. Sadly, anti-Asian and anti-LGBTQ bigotry and violence are on the rise today, and we seem to be reverting to 1950’s levels of ignorance once again. I’m glad books like this one are available for young adults, and I really hope we can stop this horrific backslide toward radical intolerance.