Last Night at the Telegraph Club Characters
The main characters in Last Night at the Telegraph Club are Lily Hu, Shirley Lum, and Kath Miller.
- Lily Hu is the protagonist of the novel, a bright Chinese American high school student who faces various forms of discrimination as she discovers and claims her identity.
- Shirley Lum has been Lily’s best friend since childhood and represents conformity to the expectations of their social milieu in Chinatown.
- Kath Miller is Lily’s new friend and love interest, who introduces Lily to a community of lesbian women and helps her accept her sexuality.
Last Updated on October 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702
Lily Hu is a Chinese American girl who, for most of the book, is a senior in high school. Lily is shy and anxious, but also determined to be her real self, regardless of the cost. Over the course of the book, she explores, and ultimately comes to accept, her attraction to women. Though at first she can barely believe that such a thing could be real or acceptable, she overcomes her hesitation and shyness to embrace who she really is, with the help of her friend Kath.
However, Lily cannot avoid the fact that she lives in a world where queerness is forbidden, especially for Chinese girls. To explore this part of her identity, she regularly sneaks out with Kath to the Telegraph Club, a bar where lesbians gather. Lily and Kath fall in love, but their world is torn apart by prejudice.
Lily’s particular struggle arises from two forms of prejudice, as a result of both her sexual identity and her race. Indeed, even in the world of lesbian gatherings, she is a stranger because she is Chinese American. The women often ask if she can speak English, and they treat her as a curiosity in other ways, too.
Shirley Lum is Lily’s childhood best friend. They have known each other all their lives. The bossy and demanding Shirley at first refuses to accept Lily’s friendship with Kath. Though she acts out of concern for Lily, Shirley cannot overcome her prejudices and opinions about the kinds of people Lily should spend her time with. When she discovers Lily is a lesbian, Shirley is appalled. However, she does try to protect her friend, but when Lily refuses to protect herself at the cost of lying about her identity, Shirley rejects her friendship.
Another key aspect of Shirley’s character is her relationship with Calvin, the older brother of one of their classmates. Shirley is not supposed to spend time with Calvin, who is suspected of being a communist, but she defies her family and does so anyway. However, her own position as a defier of Chinatown society does not lead her to extend compassion to Lily’s situation.
Kath Miller is a classmate of Lily’s who is white. Kath and Lily first bond over their shared love of math and rockets. When she learns that Lily has an interest in the Telegraph Club, Kath reveals that she has been there before. Kath becomes Lily’s entryway into the lesbian community. As they explore this world together, Kath treats Lily with tenderness and care. She is hesitant to admit her feelings for Lily, but when Lily opens up about her own feelings, Kath joyfully embraces their relationship.
Grace Hu is Lily’s mother. She is intelligent and protective of her family. Grace’s feelings about her Chinese American identity are complex. Though she feels American, she is fascinated with China and what it would be like to live there. She navigates this complexity by keeping her family as close to their Chinese identity as she can.
Joseph Hu is Lily’s father, a doctor. He is calm and determined, a man of integrity, as he shows when he refuses to tell the government men what they want to hear about Calvin. Throughout the book, Joseph demonstrates rationality and an ability to listen—qualities that clearly come through in his daughter as well. Yet he is not able to accept Lily’s identity because of his fears for her future.
Judy Fong is Lily’s aunt, a mathematician who works on rockets. She is the most open-minded adult member of the family, and she and Lily share a close bond because of their shared interests. It is Judy who has the fortitude and compassion to come find Lily at Lana’s house and even to be polite to Lana, despite whatever discomfort or disapproval she may feel. Though Judy plays a role in taking Lily away from San Francisco, the book ultimately portrays Judy in a somewhat positive light when she tells Lily that she is going to try to understand what her niece is going through.