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A color photograph of a contemporary street scene in Chinatown, San Francisco. Signs with Chinese characters are on the building and marquees, the biggest of which is for Canton Bazaar. A couple dozen red paper lanterns hang on wires that cross the street
Chinatown, San Francisco, California. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2012, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Research Inspired by Fiction and Fiction Inspired by Research: Exploring San Francisco’s Historic Chinatown

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Ever since I started working at the Library of Congress, I always pull up when I’m reading historical fiction to find relevant real-life photographs, newspapers, and documents. Recently, I read Malinda Lo’s Young Adult historical fiction novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club. The story follows Lily, a Chinese-American teenager living in San Francisco during the 1950s, who questions not only her sexuality, but what citizenship means during the course of the novel. At the 2022 National Book Festival, Lo joined a panel of writers to recognize the book’s achievement as the winner of the National Book Awards 2021 for Young People’s Literature. In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we invite you and your family to watch this conversation, then use Library primary sources to explore the vivid San Francisco Chinatown community that Lo draws from in the novel. Finally, inspire the budding writers in your life with a writing and research activity.


0:33-1:41- Moderator Dhonielle Clayton introduces the panel and expresses her delight at seeing diverse books win awards
3:20- Last Night at the Telegraph Club was inspired by Lo’s nonfiction reading
10:30-13:00: Lo’s research on the 1950s brought up parallels with today
19:05: The tools of democracy support children with identities targeted by book-banning
29:15: Lo shares formative memories of the children’s room in her local library
46:00: Advice on conducting respectful research when creating diverse characters
52:30: Advice on overcoming writer’s block

Finding San Francisco’s Chinatown in the Library’s Collection

As I read Last Night at the Telegraph Club, I continued my Library of Congress employee habit of trawling the collections for related sources. I found photographs of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where Lily’s aunt works as a “human computer”, and oral histories from the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots who inspire Lily’s girlfriend Kath to fly.

A woman in a full flight suit carries bags and walks away from a plane with a propeller in a black and white photograph.
Aviatrix Leaving Plane, circa 1941, photo the Office of War Information.

One thing that struck me from the book was the vivid descriptions of the historical setting. At minute 56:00 in the talk above, Lo speaks about how she was able to write so realistically about the city because she lived there for fifteen years. Despite her familiarity with the San Francisco, she conducted a great deal of additional research. “I went back to visit, and I walked the path that Lily walks every day to go to school. I found locations onsite, I took a lot of photos, and I really immersed myself in the research,” she shares.

San Francisco Chinatown in the Collections

I was lucky enough to be visiting relatives in San Francisco while reading The Last Night at the Telegraph Club. While San Francisco’s Chinatown is certainly not an exact mirror of the 1950s neighborhood, the community still exists and thrives. But sometimes historic communities, particularly communities of color, are erased from today’s streets, as the Library’s Innovator in Residence Jeffrey Yoo Warren explores in his project about historical Chinatowns, Seeing Lost Enclaves. So, if you can’t explore a community that you find in a historical fiction novel—either because it’s far away geographically or from a different time period—the Library’s collections can fill in the gaps. I searched the collection for pictures and representations of Lily’s San Francisco Chinatown; here are some of my favorites:

On a 1890s city street with dirt instead of pavement, a young man in a traditional Chinese outfit holds up two swords while kicking his feet as he dances. The photograph is in black and white. Three people who are walking by stop to stare.
The sword dancer, Chinatown, San Francisco, by Arthur Genthe, 1896. Photo courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The earliest images of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the Library’s collection are through the eyes and camera of well-known photographer Arthur Genthe. This 1896 photograph offers a glimpse from before San Francisco’s urban landscape and history was changed by the earthquakes and fires of 1906. I wonder what this young dancer was thinking—and how he might have reacted to the strange photographer documenting his community.

A black and white photograph from 1938. About a dozen men in jackets and suits huddle in front of a storefront with a sign that reads "Books, Jewelry, Printing, Phonographs"
San Francisco, California. In front of the local paper at Chinatown, with news of the surrender of Canton to the Japanese.

By 1938, Genthe’s student Dorothea Lange was photographing San Francisco, including the Chinatown community. As I searched, I used the website’s tools, specifically the left sidebar, to narrow my results to the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The photograph above and Dorothea Lange’s caption speaks to plot points in Lo’s novel. The novel flashes back to scenes in Lily’s parents lives during World War II and how their relationship evolved, though Lily’s mother speaks Cantonese and her father is from Shanghai, a Mandarin-speaking area. This photograph corroborates something readers learn about San Francisco’s Chinatown from the novel, and the image alludes to the fear and uncertainty community members felt during the late 1930s and 1940s.

Newspaper article headlined "El Centrans Give Glowing Account of Madame Chiang
Imperial Valley Press, April 1, 1943, Page 5, from Chronicling America.

As a final collections connection, while the titular Telegraph Club is fictional, the novel portrays characters reacting to actual historical events—such as the flashback scene where Lily’s family cheer for a parade to celebrate Soong Mei-ling, also known as Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, then the First Lady of the Republic of China, during her World War II-era tour of the United States. Historical newspapers in Chronicling America, the Library’s online newspaper website, can extend our understanding of historical fiction. This article from a newspaper in Southern California shares how a local couple experienced the event portrayed in the novel.

Family Writing Activities: Place as a Prompt

As Malinda Lo shared in her talk at the National Book Festival, she is an avid researcher. Even if your child is not (yet) an award-winning novelist, research is an important part of any writing process!

Budding fiction writers can use the following research tips to find historic images of places:

  • Search your chosen locale on, then use the sidebars to narrow your format to “Images” before further focusing this search by location and date
  • The Sanborn fire insurance maps allow you to see how neighborhoods have changed over time. I enjoy using the Sanborn Maps Navigator tools for easy searching.
  • Pair place-based research with newspaper articles. Once you find a photograph you like, identify the date, then search for newspaper articles from that year and location using the “Advanced Search” features on Chronicling America

As a creative writer, I sometimes describe photographs as a writing exercise. Sometimes, it leads to “ekphrastic” writing (work inspired by photographs or artwork), or I decide to set stories or poems in the setting of my chosen photograph. Even if I don’t write anything directly inspired by the photograph, an exercise like helps me “write through” whatever is blocking me and connect with my own creativity by imagining places I’ve never been.

Now it’s your turn! Using the tips above, find a photograph of a place—from any era—and describe it. What does this process unlock in you, as a writer? What more are you wondering about the place? Where else can you find more primary sources related to this place? What kind of characters visit this place? What are their stories?

At minute 52:00 in the above video, the award-wining authors offer advice for overcoming writer’s block. Lo shares that she sets a word goal per day—usually 1,000 words—and writes, even if the words are, as she says, “terrible—and they usually are!” She concludes her advice for budding writers by saying, “When I get to the end, then I go back to fix it, because it’s usually bad” but that the important thing is getting to the end.

With Lo’s words in your ears, and our collections as inspiration, we hope our research tips can help your young writer explore their creativity!

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