Lily is a queer Chinese American teen living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950’s. Although she has friends in her close knit community, her dreams take her elsewhere. Lily is one of only two girls in her high school’s advanced math class; she wants to go to college and become a “computer” at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA like her Aunt Judy.
The other girl in the math class, Kathleen Miller, wants to be a pilot. Lily connects with Kathleen and slowly discovers they are both interested in math, science – and each other. She and Kathleen cautiously move toward facing, examining and understanding the feelings they have. Lily is curious about The Telegraph Club, where male impersonator Tommy Andrews performs. Kathleen takes her there; for the first time Lily connects with women who aren’t afraid to express themselves and their queerness. Lily decides that, although it will be hard, she will fight to live her truth.
The narrative is well plotted and does not gloss over the racism, homophobia and sexism rampant at that time. Lily’s friends, family and the women she meets at the club all have depth, representing a variety of life experiences and points of view. The backstory of some of Lily’s older relatives provides a historical look at the many legalized forms of anti-Asian discrimination her community faced. Several incidents at The Telegraph Club show the harm done by homophobia, particularly as practiced by the media and legal system.
In the Author’s Note, Malinda Lo shares the extensive (and fascinating!) research she did into life in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950’s, and into life for queer women of color at that time. I appreciated her choice to use language – Orientals, Negroes, etc.- to solidify the setting, even though those words are awkward now. Chinese dialog written with traditional characters brings us further into Lily’s world. Lo bases some characters on real people in an effort to highlight queer Chinese American women whose stories have been erased. A list of visual and print resources provides information for those who would like to learn more.
It’s interesting to reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t since Lily’s time. It’s a good reminder that just because we make some progress, it doesn’t mean the fight is over.
Find Last Night at the Telegraph Club at your local bookstore.
BONUS: If you really want to sink into the story, find the Spotify playlist Malinda Lo created, which contains music found in the book and inspired by the story. Listen while you read!