Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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Winner of the National Book Award
A New York Times Bestseller

“The queer romance we’ve been waiting for.”–Ms. Magazine

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the feeling took root–that desire to look, to move closer, to touch. Whenever it started growing, it definitely bloomed the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club. Suddenly everything seemed possible. 

But America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father–despite his hard-won citizenship–Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

(Cover image may vary.)



That woman is so glamorous," Shirley said, nudging Lily to look. Two Caucasian women were seated across the restaurant at the table in the alcove. "I wonder if she's going to a show."

It was Friday night in the middle of the dinner rush, and the Eastern Pearl was almost full, but Lily knew immediately who Shirley was talking about. The red paper lanterns hanging overhead shed a warm glow over the woman's blond hair; it was pulled up in a twist and pinned with something glittering that matched the droplets in her ears. She wore a royal-blue satin sleeveless dress with a scoop neckline, which showed off her creamy skin, and a matching blue bolero jacket hung over the back of her seat. Her companion was dressed much less glamorously. In fact, she wore trousers—gray flannel ones, with a soft-collared white blouse tucked in at the waist. Her hair was cut short in the current style, but on her it looked a bit less gamine than mannish, which drew Lily's attention. There was something about her posture that felt subtly masculine. Lily couldn't put her finger on it, but it intrigued her.

Lily realized she was staring and turned her attention back to the messy pile of napkins in front of her. Beside her, Shirley was moving rapidly through her own stack, transforming them into crisp swans. Lily had spent countless hours in the restaurant with Shirley since they were little, and over the years she'd helped out with various small tasks as needed. Now they were about to start their senior year in high school, but she still couldn't fold a napkin into a decent swan. She picked apart the one she had been working on and started over.

On weekend nights, the Eastern Pearl mainly attracted tourists rather than local Chinese. Shirley said it was because one of the tour companies that brought people to Chinatown recommended it, which led to good business for the restaurant. Lily wondered if the women in the alcove were tourists, and she snuck another glance at them.

The blonde was removing a silver cigarette case from her handbag, and her companion pulled a matchbook from her trouser pocket, leaning toward her as she struck a match. The blonde cupped her hand around the flame, drawing her friend's hand close to her face as she inhaled. Afterward, she sat back and offered the case to her friend, who removed a cigarette and lit it quickly, pulling the cigarette away from her mouth with her thumb and index finger. Smoke curled up into the red-lit ceiling.

"You're making a mess of those," Shirley said, glancing at Lily's poorly folded swans. "Ma won't like them."

"Sorry," Lily said. "I'm no good at this."

Shirley shook her head, but she wasn't annoyed. This was the way it always was. "I'll redo yours," Shirley said as she pulled Lily's napkins toward her.

Lily sat there for a moment, watching Shirley shake out her messy swan, and then she reached for the Chronicle. She always enjoyed the theater and film reviews and society columns, with their photographs of women in furs and diamonds, and she wondered idly if the blonde had ever been in the paper.

"Maybe she's an heiress," Lily said to Shirley. "The blonde over there."

Shirley glanced across the restaurant again, briefly. "An heiress to a gold mine?"

"Yes. And her father recently died and left her with a fortune—"

"But she's discovered that she has a half brother—"

"—who's fighting her for the inheritance—"

"—so she hired a private investigator to seduce him!"

Lily shot Shirley a confused glance. "What?"

"Well, who do you think that other woman is? She looks like a female private investigator. Only a female PI would look like that. She was probably undercover."

Lily was amused. "Undercover where?"

"Oh, who knows."

They had played this game since they were children—inventing stories for strangers they saw in the restaurant—but Shirley tended to lose interest in their inventions before Lily did.

"Did you see the new ad my parents placed?" Shirley asked, setting the latest napkin swan next to the others, all lined up like a funny little army.


"It's in there—I saw it earlier. Keep going. It's on the same page as the nightclub reviews."

Lily obediently flipped the pages of the Chronicle to the "After Night Falls" column, which took up half of the page. The other half was filled with ads for restaurants and nightclubs. She skimmed them, hunting for the Eastern Pearl ad. meet me at julian's xochimilco: serving the best mexican dinner. all-chinese floor shows—superb full-course chinese or american dinner—forbidden city. An illustration of four faces—father, mother, son, and daughter with a bow in her hair—advertised good food! good living includes dining at grant's.

"There it is," Shirley said, pointing to an ad near the bottom of the page. A simple black rectangle with the type in bold white read: experience the finest oriental cuisine at the eastern pearl—the best of chinatown.

But Lily's eye was drawn to a square box directly above the Eastern Pearl ad. It read: tommy andrews male impersonator—world premiere! the telegraph club. 462 broadway. It was a relatively large ad that included a photo of a person who looked like a handsome man with his hair slicked back, dressed in a tuxedo. Something went still inside Lily, as if her heart had taken a breath before it continued beating.

"It's not very big, but Pa thinks it will get noticed," Shirley said. "What do you think?"

"Oh, I—I'm sure it'll get noticed," Lily said.

"People read that page, don't they? They always want to know what stars are in town."

"You're right. I'm sure people will see it."

Shirley nodded, satisfied, and Lily forced herself to look up from the photo of Tommy Andrews. Across the restaurant the two women were paying their bill. The woman in the blue dress took a wallet out of her handbag, while the woman with the short hair unexpectedly pulled a billfold out of her trouser pocket. Their dollars tumbled limply onto the table.

Behind the counter, the swinging door to the kitchen opened. Shirley's mother poked her head out and called, "Shirley, come help me for a minute."

"Yes, Ma," Shirley answered. She gave Lily an exasperated glance. "Don't touch the napkins. I'll finish them when I get back."

The bell attached to the restaurant's front door jingled, and Lily saw the two women leaving. The short-haired woman held the door open for her friend, and then they were gone, and Lily was staring down at the ad for the Telegraph Club again.

Four-sixty-two Broadway must be only a few blocks from the Eastern Pearl. There were several nightclubs on Broadway, just east of Columbus. Lily's parents always told her to avoid those blocks; they were for adults, they said, and for 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 (always during the day, of course) 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.

Her palms were a little damp. She glanced over her shoulder, but no one was behind the counter. She quickly tore out the page with the Telegraph Club ad, folded it into a neat, small square, and tucked it deep into the pocket of her skirt. She closed the newspaper and slid it back into the pile of Chronicles beneath the counter. As she straightened the stack, she realized her fingertips were smudged with newsprint. She ran to the bathroom and turned on the sink, scrubbing at her fingers with the harsh pink soap until no trace of ink remained.


The Eastern Pearl was only a ten-minute walk from the Hu family flat, but that night the journey home seemed to take Lily forever. As soon as she left the restaurant, she had to spend several minutes talking to old Mr. Wong, who was locking up his imports store next door. Then, as she rounded the corner onto Grant Avenue, Charlie Yip at the concession stand called out to her, saying he had her favorite wa mooi* on discount. She bought a small bag to share with her brothers, and as she slid the candy into her skirt pocket, she took care not to crush the folded newspaper.

Outside the Shanghai Palace, a clump of Caucasian tourists blocked the sidewalk. They were dressed up for their night out in Chinatown, and Lily could tell they'd had a few cocktails. None of them noticed her as she slipped around them into the street, dodging a cigarette butt flung by a woman in a fur stole. Lily shot an irritated glance at the woman's back as a car honked at her, causing Lily to jump out of the way. Now pinned between the tourists and a parked Buick, she was forced to wait for the traffic light to turn red before she could finally cross the street, darting impatiently between idling cars.

When she reached the opposite sidewalk, she glanced back up Grant toward Broadway and North Beach, wondering where the Telegraph Club was exactly. She imagined a tall neon sign over an awning-covered door. She remembered the two women she'd seen at the Eastern Pearl, and she pictured them going to the Telegraph Club. She imagined them taking a seat at a small, round table near the stage, where Tommy Andrews would emerge, dressed to the nines, to sing.

She wanted to take out the newspaper ad right then and there to see Tommy's face again, but she resisted. Clay Street was right ahead; she was only a couple of blocks from home. She walked faster.

Lily unlocked the front door and hurried up the long wooden stairs to the third-floor landing. The flat was quiet and dark to the left, where the kitchen was, but down the hall to the right the living room door spilled light into the hallway. She hung her jacket on the coatrack, took off her shoes, put on her slippers, and padded toward the living room, passing the closed door to her parents' bedroom.

Her father was seated on the sofa, reading the newspaper and smoking his pipe. Her younger brothers, Eddie and Frankie, were sprawled on the rug reading comic books. When she entered, her father looked up and smiled. The lenses of his round glasses reflected the lamplight.

"Have you had dinner?" he asked. "How was Shirley?"

"She's fine. I ate with her. Where's Mama?"

"She went to bed early. If you're still hungry there are leftovers in the kitchen."

Eddie looked over his shoulder at her. "Also some cake. There was a bake sale at Cameron House."

This reminded Lily of the wa mooi, and she pulled them out of her pocket. "Do you want some of these? I got them from Charlie Yip."

Frankie jumped up to take them from her, while Papa said, "Not too many—it's almost time for bed."

Lily could predict how the rest of the night would go. Her father would stay up until he finished reading the paper—perhaps another half hour. Her brothers would argue that they should be able to stay up later, but they would be forced into bed by ten o'clock. She could sit in the living room with them, impatiently reading a novel, but she already knew she wouldn't be able to concentrate. Instead she went into the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil. While she waited she stood at the window over the sink, gazing at the city lights, each a glowing ember marking someone else's life: bedroom and living room windows, headlights crawling up the steep streets. She wondered where those two women from the restaurant lived and what their homes looked like. She slid her hand into her pocket and touched the folded newspaper.

She made a cup of jasmine tea and took it to her bedroom, which wasn't really a bedroom but an alcove off the living room behind pocket doors. She left them open for now. Her father had used the space as an office until Frankie had turned four, when Lily had argued her way out of sharing a room with her brothers. Now she had her own tiny hideaway, into which she had crammed her narrow bed, an old bureau with drawers that never closed properly, and several tall stacks of books that created a precarious nightstand for her bedside lamp. The small window in the wall above the foot of her bed was covered with a short curtain made of blue velvet, dotted with tiny sequins. Lily had sewn it herself in home economics class in junior high school. The stitches had begun unraveling almost as soon as she hung it up, but she still liked it. It reminded her of the science fiction novels she liked to read, with their covers depicting outer space.

While she waited for her father and brothers to go to bed, she went to brush her teeth and then puttered around her little room. She folded some laundry she had left on her bed; she shuffled through her notes from last year's math class to see what could be discarded. All the while she was acutely aware of the piece of newspaper in her skirt pocket: the soft whispering sound it made when she knelt down to put away her clothes; the way its edges nudged against her hip when she sat on her bed.

It felt like hours before her father and brothers left the living room. When they were finally gone, Lily closed the pocket doors to her alcove and changed into her nightgown. She pulled out the newspaper ad and set it on top of the books that made her nightstand. She had folded it into a small square, but now it began to open of its own accord, parting like the wings of a butterfly.

Startled, she watched it until it stopped moving. Outside, the cable car rumbled as it came up nearby Powell Street, and the bell seemed to clang in time with the beating of her heart. She began to unstack one of the piles of books beside her bed, and pulled out Arthur C. Clarke's The Exploration of Space, which had been a gift from Aunt Judy. She laid the book on her bed, then pushed her pillow against the wall and sat back against it, reaching at last for the ad.

She unfolded it carefully. There was Tommy Andrews gazing into the distance like a movie star, a halo of light around Tommy's gleaming hair. tommy andrews male impersonator. Some time ago, she had seen an advertisement for a show at a different nightclub that read: jerry bouchard, world's foremost male impersonator! It had been accompanied by an illustration of a woman (her curves were apparent) in a top hat and tails, with the curls of her hair poufing out beneath her hat. The illustration had seemed wrong—comical, somehow. Not like this photo. Tommy was handsome, debonair. The photo wouldn't be out of place on Shirley's bedroom wall, alongside her pictures of Tab Hunter and Marlon Brando.

Once, Lily had torn an illustration of a moon colony out of Popular Science magazine (which her father sometimes purchased for Eddie) and taped it on the wall above her bureau. When Shirley had seen it, she had teased her for having a boy's tastes, and after Shirley went home, Lily had taken it down. If she were exceptionally daring, she would cut away the words tommy andrews male impersonator from this ad and pin up the picture in the space left by the moon colony. She doubted that anyone—even Shirley—would realize that the photo was not of a man.

But she knew that she did not dare. She set the ad down on her bed and opened The Exploration of Space. Hidden between the pages were two other folded clippings. She had torn the first one out of an old Life magazine that had been left in a box outside the Chinese Hospital. It depicted a young Katharine Hepburn lounging in a chair, legs casually draped over one of the arms. She wore wide-legged trousers and a blazer and held a cigarette in one hand while gazing off to her left. There was a knowing confidence in her expression, a hint of masculine attitude in her shoulders.

Lily distinctly remembered coming across the photo while she was flipping through the magazine on the sidewalk. It had been September, and the sun had been bright on her head. She had stopped at the photo and stared at it until her hair began to burn from the heat, and then—before she could second-guess herself—she ripped it out of the magazine. Someone had been walking past at the time and Lily saw them look at her in surprise, but by then it was too late, and she pretended as if she hadn't noticed their glance at all. She had quickly folded the page in two, slid it into her book bag, and dropped the magazine back in the box.

The other clipping was an article about two former Women Airforce Service Pilots who had opened their own airfield after the war. It included a small photo of them sitting close to each other, looking up at the sky. They were dressed in matching sunglasses, collared shirts, and trousers, and the woman on the right, who had tousled, short hair, protectively held the hand of the woman on the left. The short-haired woman worked as a mechanic; her companion was a flight instructor. They weren't as dashing as Katharine Hepburn, but there was something compelling about their casual closeness.

The article had come from an issue of the magazine Flying that Lily found at the public library last spring while researching a report on the WASPs. She vividly remembered sneaking the magazine into the emptiest, farthest corner of the library and tearing the article out beneath the table as quietly as possible. She knew she shouldn't, but she had needed to have the picture in a way she didn't consciously understand. She'd surreptitiously left a nickel on the library's circulation desk as if that might make up for her defacement of library property.

Now she laid the women pilots on the bed next to Katharine Hepburn and Tommy Andrews and looked at them all in succession. She couldn't put into words why she had gathered these photos together, but she could feel it in her bones: a hot and restless urge to look—and, by looking, to know.


The elevator girl at Macy's was a young Chinese woman wearing a sky-blue cheongsam* embroidered with yellow flowers. "Good morning," she said to Lily and her mother. "What floor, please?"

"Good morning," Lily's mother said. "The junior miss department, please."

"Yes, ma'am." The elevator girl pressed the button for the third floor. She looked barely older than Lily herself, but Lily didn't recognize her, which suggested she hadn't grown up in San Francisco.

"Are you Mrs. Low's granddaughter?" Lily's mother asked. "Mrs. Wing Kut Low, on Jackson Street?"

As the wood-paneled elevator passed the second floor, the girl answered, "No. I'm from Sacramento."

An uncomfortable-looking stool was bolted to the floor in front of the control panel. Lily imagined the girl sinking onto the stool to rest her feet, slipping them out of her black pumps between elevator rides. The idea of being trapped in this moving box all day—doors opening and closing, but never able to leave—seemed like a suffocating way to earn a paycheck.

"Sacramento!" Lily's mother exclaimed, as if that were the far side of the moon. The gears creaked slightly as the elevator slowed down, approaching the third floor. "Are you alone here in San Francisco?"

"I have an uncle in Chinatown."

"I see."

The tone of her mother's voice told Lily that she did not think much of this arrangement. When the elevator stopped at the third floor, the doors slid open with an accompanying ding. Lily's mother paused in the doorway. "If you are ever in need of feminine aid," she said to the girl, "I work at the Chinese Hospital. I'm a nurse in the obstetrics department. Mrs. Grace Hu."

The elevator girl seemed uncomfortable. "Thank you, ma'am. That's very generous."

Lily cast a glance of furtive sympathy at the girl before she stepped out of the elevator.

"I worry about girls like that," her mother said in a low voice as the door closed behind them. "She's too young to be on her own. I can't imagine her uncle takes good care of her."

Lily glanced around to make sure nobody else had overheard. Directly ahead, the junior miss department sprawled beneath fluorescent lights. The floor was dotted with other shoppers, making their way from one glass display case to another. There was a mother-daughter pair near a case of hats, and the teenage girl giggled as her mother pinned a blue pillbox on her curled blond hair. They glanced at Lily and her mother as they passed, and then their gazes slid away dismissively. There were no other Chinese on the floor this morning, and Lily became self-conscious of the way she and her mother stood out. Her mother was wearing an out-of-date, square-shouldered brown suit and a matching brown hat, something that Lily had only ever seen her wear to church. And Lily's cheap skirt and blouse, acquired on sale, were far from the height of fashion.

She slowed down to let her mother go ahead of her, as if that might make others think they weren't together. When that thought made her flinch with guilt, she allowed herself to be distracted by the jewelry—silver button earrings and gleaming pearl chokers and cubic zirconia bracelets—and then by a framed advertisement on top of an apparel counter. It showed a trio of girls in mix-and-match suit separates. The middle girl wore a tuxedo-style jerkin over a white mandarin-collar blouse with a slim, dark skirt. She stood with one hand on her hip, one shoulder angled down, looking directly at the camera with a flirtatiously raised eyebrow. One gloved hand dangled next to the hand of the girl next to her, so close their pinkie fingers were almost touching. All three girls wore knowing smiles, as if they shared a secret.

"Would you like to try something on?"

Lily looked up from the ad to see a salesgirl approaching. "I was just looking," Lily said awkwardly.

The salesgirl had a friendly, open face, and her light brown hair was cut in a Peter Pan style. Her name tag identified her as miss stevens. "These separates are very versatile," she said, moving the framed advertisement aside to show Lily the clothes in the case. "You can wear the blouse with these lovely A-line skirts as well."

"Oh, I—I don't know," Lily stammered, but she took a step closer to the case. The tuxedo jerkin was in a navy blue fabric with notched black lapels.

Miss Stevens took out the jerkin and laid it on the glass. "And it's hand washable. Very smart."

Lily reached out and touched it, her fingers running lightly over the crisply pressed texture.

"I can bring an appropriate size to the fitting room if you'd like," Miss Stevens said.

"Lily! There you are."

Lily jerked her hand away and looked up. Her mother was walking toward her, boxy black handbag slung over her arm, a blond salesgirl following with an armful of shirtwaists and skirts.

"I've found some things for you to try on," her mother said. She glanced down at the tuxedo jerkin and raised her eyebrows. "What's this?"

"A wonderful collection of mix-and-match separates, ma'am," Miss Stevens said. Her gaze flickered briefly to the blond salesgirl and then back to Lily's mother, who went to the case and examined the jerkin and the ad.

"Where would you wear this, Lily?" Her mother's tone was short and critical.

Lily was embarrassed. "I don't know. I was just looking."

"It's perfect for parties," Miss Stevens said. "If Miss Marshall is preparing a fitting room for you, she could bring this ensemble too."

The blond salesgirl—Miss Marshall—stepped forward with her armful of clothes, her face blandly expectant, but Lily's mother shook her head.

"Thank you, but I don't believe this is right for my daughter. Come to the fitting room, Lily. I have some school clothes for you to try on."

Lily gave Miss Stevens an apologetic look before hurrying after her mother and Miss Marshall. Miss Stevens returned her glance with a thin smile as she folded the jerkin to put it away.

In the dressing room, the salesgirl hung a row of dresses, shirtwaists, skirts, and matching jackets on the wall-mounted rail. Lily's mother took a seat on the bench inside the room. "Try on the brown dress first," her mother said. "That one, with the black buttons."

There was a succession of brown and gray dresses and skirts, with pale pink or baby blue cotton shirtwaists featuring demure round collars or cuffed three-quarter-length sleeves. They were the teenage version of her mother's church suit, inoffensive but boring. Lily thought longingly of the tuxedo jerkin, but as she made her way through the clothes her mother had chosen, the idea of it became increasingly outlandish. Maybe her mother was right. Where would she wear such a thing? It would cause a sensation at the fall dance, but she wasn't the kind of girl who caused sensations.

On Sale
Dec 28, 2021
Page Count
432 pages