University City

University City couple lives the American dream

It's been a life of hard work, perseverance and hope for House of Leng owners Eang Leng, 40, and his wife, Pun, 39.

From living a life as refugees in Cambodia to successfully running two restaurants in the University City area, Eang and Pun know what it means to be survivors.

In January, House of Leng restaurant opened at University Place, in the same building where the House of Taipei restaurant operated years ago. Eang Leng, who started as a busboy at the House of Taipei, and Pun started House of Leng at Cochran Commons on W. Mallard Creek Church Road six years ago and decided it was time to expand.

"We weren't thinking of opening back here, but the landlord (sought) us out," Eang said in sometimes halting English. "I love the location. A lot of people like to come here, relax and walk around the lake and walk the dog."

At the House of Taipei, Eang worked his way up to general manager. For Eang, it's different owning a restaurant.

"I have my name behind it ... I want to make sure I do the right thing," he said. "I do care a lot for my customers. They come from far away. Concord, Kannapolis ... even from South Carolina and Lake Norman just to come and have our food. I want to make sure they enjoy."

His wife said there is a lot more work and effort as owners. "Our hearts and souls are in this," said Pun, who quit her job as the assistant nurse manager at Carolinas Medical Center to work with her husband. "We spend a lot more time here than at home."

Eang and Pun are originally from Cambodia but met in Charlotte in 1994. At the time, Pun was a student at Queens University, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in nursing.

But for the two of them, life was very different before coming to the United States. They spent their early childhoods amid a civil war, after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime took control of Cambodia.

The war is all Eang can remember, and he does not recall any happy childhood memories. There was no such thing as television and no toys. Kids played with dirt and rubber bands, he said.

During this time of social unrest, Eang lost his father and two older sisters, Quen and Ming, to starvation.

"One sister that week and a couple weeks later my other sister and a couple weeks later my dad," he said. "Almost my turn, but I'm lucky, Vietnamese invaded and everything came back."

Even though there was a hospital, it was a place where people went and became sick.

"You go in there, they give you coconut milk," Eang said. "Sometimes they just give you a water shot. You go there, you going to get worse. Just like a virus. If you are not that sick, you are going to get sick."

Eang and his mother tried to stop Quen from going to the hospital, but she was so hungry she felt like she had no other choice.

A week later, she got worse and couldn't walk straight, he said. One day she was lying down, shaking, he said.

"My mom said, 'Help me! Help her!' I don't know what to do," said Eang. His mother tried to give her a spoon of sugar, but it was too late and she died soon after.

In 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, Eang and his family had a chance to escape. At the time, people would take refugees to the border of Thailand for a token sum.

But Eang's family had no money. Instead they traded their mother's gold jewelry for a ride to the border, where they stayed at different refugee camps for several months at a time.

"It's horrible...nighttime you can't sleep, they bomb," said Eang. "They give us blanket and tent and water and all that stuff but still people are hungry."

With the help of missionaries from a church organization, Eang and his family left Cambodia and moved to Mobile, Ala., in 1981.

"When we come, we have little money," said Eang. "We have to rent our own place and we have to go to work right away."

Eang's family picked crabs for a living and saved enough money to move to Charlotte in 1989.

His mother always encouraged him to study and work hard. There was no such thing as computers or sitting around doing nothing.

That mentality has stayed with Eang till this day.

"No job is too little, no job is too big," said Pun, "He's not too big to go clean the bathroom or take the orders. It's the mentality that you (were) there once. Just because you become a boss or owner doesn't mean you are too high to serve the customers."

Eang and Pun live in the University City area with their four children, Richard, 13, Anessa, 11, Lanica, 8, and Benjamin, 3. Their two oldest children attend Ridge Road Middle School and their third attends Mallard Creek Elementary School.

"We like living and working here," said Pun. "It's active. It's got a variety of people that live here ... every race and every culture. It's never boring."

Eang and his wife raise their children with a strong work ethic. They tell them of their history, where they came from, and what it means to be a survivor. It's a constant reminder of true resilience and that hard work pays off.