It’s 1954 and the Red Scare is in full force. Chinese Americans such as Lily’s family must keep a low profile or risk being accused of Communism and deported. When Lily finds an advert for a male impersonator performing in San Francisco, she is drawn to her in a way she doesn’t understand. At school her best friend frowns upon her growing friendship with Kathleen, who leads Lily through the doors of the Telegraph Club, to a forbidden world where Lily can be free to be herself.
Even in San Francisco, the fifties were not a good time to be gay, with homosexuality still outlawed and venues like the Telegraph Club were frequently shut down due to obscenity laws, accusing them of leading young women into acts of depravity. In contrast, Lily and Kathleen’s story is so sweet and your heart will break at how hard it is for them to be together.
Lily’s parents always told her to avoid those blocks; they were for adults, they said, and tourists. Not for good Chinese girls. Not for girls at all. Lily understood that she was supposed to think the clubs were tawdry, but every time she crossed Broadway she’d look down the wide street toward the Bay Bridge in the distance, her gaze lingering on those closed doorways, wondering what they hid from view.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is wonderfully researched historical fiction, pulling in so many details into the background. Lily looks up to her aunt who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lily would like nothing more than to go to space, at the time an impossible dream for a girl, let alone a lesbian from an immigrant family.
Lily innocently attends a picnic which puts her family’s citizenship at risk, showing how McCarthyism unfairly treated families who had built a life for themselves in America. Through flashbacks, Lily’s parents are fleshed out into believable characters who contributed plenty to their new home, only to be threatened when her father refuses to break doctor patient confidentiality.
Pharmacies at the time often stocked pulp fiction paperbacks and Lily spends her time reading through these when no one’s looking. She discovers one with two women on the cover, drawn into this illicit world. What she doesn’t know is that these books often had a moral slant, but fortunately for her, she doesn’t get a chance to finish the story in the shop. She has started to have feelings towards Kathleen and wants to know if this is possible. Then she goes to the Telegraph Club and discovers the queer scene, risking so much to sneak out and see Tommy perform and to have the chance to hold the hand of the girl she likes.
A few hours at home and the Telegraph Club seemed more like a fantasy than a real thing. This troubled her. It felt as if someone had taken an eraser to her memory – to her very self – and rubbed at it, then blown away the remains.
I loved reading about this slice of history that is not often talked about, both the fifties life in San Francisco’s China Town and the queer clubs that seem like they have always had a place in the city. Lily was a charming character to follow, she takes risks despite being a good, studious daughter. She does not want to hurt anyone but she follows her heart. I loved the acceptance she found at the Telegraph Club, even if the older patrons maybe seemed a bit patronising at times, they come through when it matters.
If you’re doing Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge, this books fits “historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist” on both counts.
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