Writing into Invisibility: Chinese Lesbianism in Malinda Lo’s Last Night at The Telegraph Club
Who is the figure of the Chinese lesbian? These labels make sense independently of each other but put them together and most of us in the western world are left with a blank space in our imagination. Lesbian representation in mainstream literature is still very much taking its first tentative steps towards racial diversity and is yet to really consider inclusivity beyond its aesthetics. Chinese representation, on the other hand, has often been so limited and one-dimensional that it is hard to think of any popular texts that discuss queerness at all, let alone the lone figure of the lesbian, who, unlike her gay and bisexual peers, is rendered entirely irrelevant by patriarchal society. Since so much of Chinese diaspora culture centres the structure of the heterosexual family, it is no wonder that we might draw a blank when conceiving this paradoxical entity. How could two such opposing identities coexist in the same body?
Meet Lily Hu, a seventeen-year-old in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare and the main character in Malinda Lo’s Last Night at The Telegraph Club, which was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Lily is a lot like we might expect, at first: the book opens in a Chinese restaurant, where she is characterised as quietly agreeable in contrast to her sharp-tongued friend Shirley. She has all the carefully forged independence of an eldest daughter. Her love of Chinatown, infused into her tender descriptions of its cultural details, is mediated only by her desire to escape it, but it is clear that this desire for escape is incapable of destroying her aforementioned love. Lily is calmly, almost casually, proud of being Chinese American. It is an identity that she is familiar with, and an identity that, at the start of the book, has not yet unveiled its limits.
Lily cannot hide being Chinese, and so the physical placeholders of Chinese identity in the book are decidedly obvious. In fact, Chinatown is a safe haven precisely because of its obviousness, and whenever she first ventures out of it into white-dominated San Francisco, she travels with her Chinese friends, whose hypervisibility further protect her own from a sinophobic population. Her Chinese identity, as we see throughout the book, is the very first thing people notice about her, and so she must be proud of it.
Lesbianism, on the other hand, is the last thing people would expect her, and so she must be ashamed. As Lily begins to explore her burgeoning desires, she seeks out small, secretive places – the corner shop with the lesbian pulp book, bathrooms where she tucks away newspaper clippings of drag kings, her own bedroom where she tries on new bras once her family are asleep. All of these places, besides her bedroom, are a part of the white, external San Francisco, and as Lily increasingly scavenges for queer representation, she simultaneously steps into closer company with whiteness. This is encapsulated in two key plot points: love interest Kathleen Miller and The Telegraph Club.
Kathleen Miller is not just the first other lesbian that Lily meets – she is also the first intimate relationship Lily has with a white person. Although the interracial aspect of their relationship has less pressing immediacy than the lesbian aspect, it is nonetheless there. A fundamental turning point in the book happens when Lily invites Kath into Chinatown for Fong Fong’s ginger ice cream, and Kath’s enjoyment of the previously foreign ice cream flavour reads almost as an acceptance of Lily’s Chinese identity as well. This moment signifies an opening doorway for deeper vulnerabilities, which is crossed when Kath reciprocates in kind: she takes Lily into her world, The Telegraph Club.
And this world – the sparkling, illicit community of lesbians – is very much Kath’s. Although Lily is the least visibly queer, her race renders her just as much of a spectacle as the drag king on stage. She is asked if she can speak English, referred to as a doll and an “Oriental*”, and everyone seems to talk to Kath about her before directly talking to her. Despite all of this, The Telegraph Club comes to double Chinatown as a safe haven for Lily to be (relatively) free about her lesbianism. It is where she accepts herself, and it is where she falls in love.
But both Chinatown and The Telegraph Club are vulnerable to oppressions from the external world, which is now coded as white and straight. Lily’s father is threatened with deportation for associating with an alleged communist, and The Telegraph Club exists under the constant threat of police raids, as well as being treated as a sort of exotic spectacle by straight tourists. Still, they both provide Lily with a pipeline of survival. Yet this survival splinters her identity as a Chinese lesbian into two shards which refuse to coexist. We see this when, after The Telegraph Club is raided and outed, Lily comes out to her friends and mother.
“She felt the rub of her mother’s wedding ring against her skin, and her mother’s face swarm into focus, her brown eyes full of the sharp worry of love, and Lily thought, You will never look at me like this again.” (Lo, 2021, p.325)
When The Telegraph Club dissolves as a safe haven so does Chinatown. Although other members of her Chinese community can still exist there, Lily no longer can, on account of being a lesbian. For the first time in her life, she flees and ends up sleeping at the house of a white lesbian she has only met once. Although she is treated with kindness, it is a temporary kindness – Lily does not belong there.
It is as if these two settings have assured mutual destruction. Chinatown and The Telegraph Club are not just places in the book; they are places inside Lily that do not see eye to eye. There is a reason she symbolically meets Kath in the shadowed streets between these locations, a reason that these meetings are poignantly immortalised in the book’s cover image. This is a book about navigating an identity that is not permitted to exist – that of the Chinese lesbian.
When Lily refuses to choose between them, she is quite literally erased from the narrative. Her parents send her to a different state to finish her school education, and we only get to witness a brief reunion with Kath one year later. What happens in that year, we as readers will never know. We can only guess at the desires, the fears, the violent turbulence that Lily might have experienced. But although we can’t know these things for sure, Lily’s return to the text is proof that she did exist, that these things did happen.
The Chinese lesbian, it seems, is first and foremost invisible. But she is nonetheless real. In giving us a fictionalised history, Malinda Lo has also cemented a path for our futures. No matter how far our identities stretch from each other, no matter how much we have been erased from the page, there will always be alleyways connecting our points of existence, and in these alleyways we can meet ourselves once again.
*I appreciate that this was the commonly used term for those with East Asian ethnic backgrounds at the time. My point is not to ignore the context, but rather to point out how the context contributes to the dehumanising nature of the language, which highlights Lily’s status as an outsider based on her appearance and nothing else.
Hamad, Ruby. White Tears/brown Scars. 2019.
Halberstam, Jack. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. Print
Eng, David L. “Out Here and Over There: Queerness and Diaspora in Asian American Studies.” Social Text, no. 52/53, Duke University Press, 1997, pp. 31–52, https://doi.org/10.2307/466733.
Bronson. The Watermelon Woman. New York, NY: First-Run Features, 1997
Lo, Malinda. The Telegraph Club. HODDER & STOUGHTON. 2021.
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