Last Night at the Telegraph Club

by Malinda Lo

1950’s San Francisco Chinatown is complicated enough for second generation Chinese teenagers, what with racism whenever they leave their safe neighborhoods, the Nationalists vs Communists entangling families in politics, and the ever present Red Scare excusing blatant police and enforcement inequities.

Imagine falling in love with a white person of your own gender at that time.

Lily is fascinated by the ad for a male impersonator at a local club. When she realizes the only other girl in her advanced math class also likes that ad, she begins sneaking out of her house and her “good Chinese daughter” persona to hang out in a club where terms like “butch” and “dyke” show her another world where women like her live and love.

Lily is naive, and loving, and just wants to do the right thing, but she’ll have to face the constant choice of living true to herself or telling lies to appease her family.

The romance in this is understated and reserved, and its far more a historical exploration of 1950’s Chinatown culture and the most interesting (to me ) intersection of cultures where the second generation children of immigrant parents must negotiate their identities within conflicting expectations. Lily is part of a large extended family that includes close knit families of Chinatown and her actions have repercussions on many people– including her non-citizen father.

I didn’t personally care for the sudden changes in POV to Lily’s mother and Aunt…they added little to the tale I thought and their voices were too similar to Lily’s to be interesting to me. I found myself skimming those bits to get back to Lily. The addition of timelines with historical and Lily’s family events were interesting, but also confusing as the flashbacks jumped back and forth.

Very historically interesting, sweet, tale that keeps you anxious for Lily’s welfare but never goes down a truly dark path.