Everyone has seen the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. It is hard to miss – it’s usually on at least once a day throughout the holiday season and on a continuous loop on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until 17 years after it came out, when I was halfway through college, that I found out it was loosely based on my hometown, Hammond, Indiana. Hammond is a stone’s throw away from Chicago. There are a lot of movies based on or filmed in the city and surrounding suburbs. After a while, you just stop noticing. Much like the continuous airing of this holiday movie – it all became static.
The movie is loosely based on the childhood memories of Jean Shepherd, who was a nationally known television and radio personality. He also narrated A Christmas Story. Jean was born in Chicago but was raised at 2907 Cleveland St. in the Hessville neighborhood in Hammond. This is where I also grew up. In the movie, Cleveland Street and Ralphie Parker attending Warren G. Harding Elementary School just seemed like a pure coincidence to me. I went to the parochial elementary school across the street from Harding and knew some kids who lived on Cleveland Street, but I still never really noticed. One of the most well-known scenes in the movie is on Christmas Day at a local Chinese restaurant. And as it turns out, this might have been based on a real place – Cam Lan Restaurant. The restaurant’s owner and his family are featured in our current exhibit, Be Heard: Asian Experiences in Indiana.
In 1947 or 1948, Charles Jong Sang and business partner James Lung Yee opened Cam Lan Restaurant as “Hammond’s Foremost Chinese and American Restaurant” at 132 Sibley St. Cam Lan was under the ownership of Charles Sang until the 1970s when he decided to retire – for the first time. It later changed ownership and was in existence for another short time. Charles would later move to Highland and open another restaurant by the name of Ho Sai Gai. Folks recall that Cam Lan had semi-private booths. At the time, it was popular and unlike any other restaurant in downtown Hammond. Charles always wore a suit and was always on hand to talk to and greet customers. He seemed to not know a stranger and was somewhat of a local celebrity.
Charles Sang’s Oct. 16, 1940, World War II Draft Registration Card shows that he was born in Suning, Hebei Province, China, in 1908. His children knew that he immigrated to Hammond at the age of 15 or 16 in 1923 or early 1924. He worked in area Chinese-owned laundries before venturing out on his own in the restaurant business. Charles must have immigrated right before the Immigration Act of 1924 – Johnson-Reed Act – which excluded Asian immigration (per the Immigration Act of 1917) and set a stringent quota system for European immigration. This went into effect on May 26, 1924. After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 – the McCarran-Walter Act – which ended Asian exclusion, Charles was able to become a U.S. citizen and did so in 1964. He passed away at the age of 84 in 1993.
Thanks to the magic of the internet and social media, I was able to locate one of Charles’ and his wife Pearl’s four children, Kelly Sang who lives in Florida. Kelly put me in touch with one of his two sisters who still live in the area. Both Kelly and his sister Sylvia talked to me about what it was like to grow up in the restaurant business. Based on the restaurant’s popularity, it undoubtedly served as inspiration for the movie, A Christmas Story. However, Cam Lan was never opened on the holidays, except for one Thanksgiving Day as Sylvia told me. And their waitstaff wasn’t Asian. Per the 1954 Hammond City Directory, their waitresses were Beatrice Clark, Marguerite Martin and Margaret Scheckler. The only employees of Chinese descent were those who worked in the kitchen, crafting and cooking dishes that have been talked about for generations.
Come see and hear the story of the Sang Family and Cam Lan Restaurant in our exhibit Be Heard: Asian Experiences in Indiana, which runs until Saturday, July 27, 2019.