Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Malinda Lo


Senator Joseph McCarthy produces a list of alleged Communists working in the State Department.

The Korean War begins.

Judy Hu marries Francis Fong.

—July 4, 1950

LILY attends the third annual Chinese American Citizens Alliance Independence Day Picnic and Miss Chinatown Contest.


Dr. Hsue-shen Tsien is placed under house arrest on suspicion of being a Communist and a sympathizer to the People’s Republic of China.

Judy takes Lily to Playland at the Beach.

In Stoumen v. Reilly, the California Supreme Court rules that homosexuals have the right to public assembly, for example, in a bar.


The Miss Chinatown contestants were clustered together behind a canvas screen near the stage. They hadn’t been there when Lily Hu walked past the same area fifteen minutes earlier on her way to the bathrooms, and there was something startling about their sudden appearance.

Lily was thirteen, and she couldn’t remember if she’d seen a group of Chinese girls like this before: in bathing suits and high heels, their hair and makeup perfectly done. They looked so American.

She slowed down. The pageant was about to start, and she’d miss the introductions if she lingered here. She should go back to her family’s picnic blanket on the lawn in front of the stage, but she dawdled, trying not to appear as if she was staring.

There were a dozen girls, and their bathing suits were white or black, sea green or forest green, one piece or two. Their arms and legs were bare beneath the hot noonday sun, their gleaming black hair curled and pinned in place. Bright red lipstick on their mouths; scarlet polish on their fingernails; smooth, tanned skin. Each girl a variation on a theme.

Their high-heeled shoes were sinking into the grassy ground. Every so often one of them lifted her foot to make sure her heel wasn’t stuck in the damp earth, like the slender-legged foals in Bambi learning to walk. The girl in the black two-piece bathing suit wore particularly tall black heels, and as she shifted in place, the right heel stuck in the ground. Her foot rose out of the shoe, revealing an ugly red mark where the back of the shoe had rubbed against her Achilles tendon. The girl frowned, tugging again at the shoe with her toes, but this time her entire foot slipped out. The round pinkness of her bare heel; the intimate arch of her foot; toes flexing in midair. Lily had to avert her eyes, as if she were watching a woman take off her dress in public.

A microphone hummed on, and a man declared in English, “Welcome to the third annual Chinese American Citizens Alliance Independence Day Picnic and Miss Chinatown Contest!”

Applause and cheers rose from the audience gathered on the lawn. An older woman carrying a clipboard began to herd the girls into a line behind the screen, preparing them to climb the stairs onto the stage. Lily turned away and hurried down the path to the lawn.

* * *

She spotted her family toward the middle of the crowd, gathered together on the scratchy old army blanket stenciled with her father’s name—CAPT. JOSEPH HU—in white paint. They were surrounded by other families, all lazing beneath the clear blue sky, all facing the stage set up in front of the main lodge.

Lily saw her mother stand, pulling four-year-old Frankie to his feet. Her father, still sitting on the blanket, handed Mama her bag, and then she and Frankie began to make their way to the path along the edge of the lawn. Uncle Francis and Aunt Judy, seated next to Lily’s father, watched the stage with mixed expressions. Uncle Francis was absorbed; Aunt Judy looked skeptical. There was no sign of Lily’s other brother, Eddie, and she guessed that he was still off playing with his friends.

Lily met her mother on the path.

“I’m taking Frankie to the bathroom,” Mama said. “There’s still some fried chicken left.”

Someone set off firecrackers as Lily headed across the lawn. The summer sun was sinking hot and dry into her black hair. It was real summertime weather here in Los Altos—Popsicle weather, unlike cool and foggy San Francisco. All day Lily had been shedding the layers she put on that morning in their Chinatown flat, and by now she was wearing only a short-sleeved blouse and cotton skirt, and wishing she had worn sandals instead of shoes and socks.

When she reached her family, she knelt down to claim the last piece of fried chicken from the basket. Her friend Shirley Lum was seated nearby with her family, and she gestured at Lily to join them. “Can I go sit with Shirley?” Lily asked her father, who nodded as the emcee started to introduce all the pageant contestants. Their names rang out over the lawn as Lily straightened up, drumstick in hand.

“Miss Elizabeth Ding!”

“Miss May Chinn Eng!”

Lily joined Shirley on their blanket—an old white tablecloth—and curled her legs to one side, tucking her skirt over her knees like a lady.

Shirley leaned toward her and said, “I like the third one best—the one in the yellow two-piece.”

“Miss Violet Toy!”

“Miss Naomi Woo!”

Lily took a bite of the chicken. The skin was still crispy, the meat juicy and salty. She cupped her hand beneath it to catch the crumbs that fell. Onstage, the girls were walking across one by one. They sashayed in their heels, causing their hips to sway back and forth. A few whistles rose from the audience, followed by laughter.

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