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Tukwila: Where dreams come true for the Ung family
Thong Ung remembers the “killing fields” of his homeland, Cambodia, where hundreds of thousands of his countrymen were killed before he left the war-torn country in 1982.
As a youngster, he also remembers returning from school, dropping his backpack and working in his family’s restaurant. He served customers and worked hard.
“In Cambodia, what parents do you have to do,” he says.
Ung is doing just that, running his successful Yamada Teriyaki on Andover Park East in Tukwila. He and his wife Chiev have lived in Tukwila for nearly 30 years, where they’ve raised four successful sons.
He instilled that work ethic in his sons and something else – do something good for your community.
Talking about his family and his homeland brings tears to his eyes. Ung talks with pride about what’s on his menu, including Chinese recipes he learned from his father and a Cambodian soup. His sons made sure he had some Western food on his extensive menu, such as a Philly cheesesteak and a French dip sandwich.
Ung carved out some time one recent morning before the busy lunch hour to tell his story and his family’s story and to talk about his food and his long career in the food industry in America.
He started as a dishwasher.
Forty years ago in the mid-1970s, Ung was a young man in his 20s. The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was filling mass graves with anyone it felt threatened its control over the Asian country, what some called genocide.
Ung, who was born in 1952, and Chiev married when he was 22 and she was 19.
Twice, Ung lived in refugee camps in Thailand, the first time in 1979 without Chiev. They both had parents to care for and she was with them. Ung returned to Cambodia several months later, but then he returned to a camp in Thailand with Chiev and other family members.
He interpreted for others in camp, knowing how to speak Thai, Chinese, Cambodian and a little Laotian.
Wiping away tears, Ung talks about a life that was torn by war and then uplifted in his new home. But even in America, life has not been easy for him or for many others, even today.
“From the bottom of my heart, I want everybody to be successful,” he says, in tears. “I know how hard it is with no food to eat. No medical,” he says.
In the refugee camp, Ung prayed for his family – make sure they’re not killed.
The Ungs did survive, arriving in Seattle on April 22, 1982, with only $15. They lived on Beacon Hill. A year earlier, his parents and a brother and sister had arrived in America and sponsored Thong and Chiev.
One of Ung’s first jobs was baking donuts. “I worked at the donut shop evenings, mornings I go to school to study ESL,” he says. When he arrived in America, his English was limited to “yes” and “no.”
He worked at a deli at the Outpatient Medical Center in Northgate in Seattle, Flying Food Group and Marriott Flight Kitchen and Sky Chef. For a time he held at second job at Frederick and Nelson. Every day (he emphasizes the words), he worked non-stop, 71 or 72 hours a week, to support his family.
He started as a dishwasher at the Marriott Flight Kitchen, working his way up to chef cook in the international foods. It was through these experiences that he honed his skills as a Western and international chef.
In 1984 the Ungs bought a house in Tukwila; with hard work, they paid off the loan.
Married for 14 years, Ungs started their family. Their first-born son is Uyjien or Jonathan as he’s known. He’s 27 and works in investment banking in South Africa.
He was followed by Uykhang or Brian, 26, who works for Amazon; Uyhun or Stephan, 22, is a graduate of Foster and Stanford, where he earned degrees in human biology and computer science and works for Google in California, and Uyseah or Thomas, 21, who’s studying aerospace engineering at the University of Washington.
Ung has told his sons his story of life in Cambodia, of how much he wanted to leave his war-town native land and find a new life in America, with opportunities for him and his family.
He’s taught them that when they grow up, they should do something for the community.
“Do something good, because this country gave me a very good life,” he said.
The Ung family visited Cambodia in 1999 to attend a family wedding.
The Ungs themselves have been married for 42 years, or maybe two years, if you’re a bureaucrat.
As refugees, the Ungs arrived in America with no personal documents, including a marriage certificate. But they needed one about two years ago to apply for health benefits.
So, Ung approached Joan Hernandez, a former and longtime member of the Tukwila City Council who has known the Ungs since May 2000. She and her husband Richard chaperoned Uyjien on a Sister City visit to Ikawa, Japan.
Hernandez got them in touch with Tukwila Municipal Court Judge Kimberly Walden, who helped them with paperwork. Then, on Sept. 4, 2012, on the Ungs’ 40th wedding anniversary, Walden performed their wedding; Hernandez was the witness.
“Now I have to be nice to my wife,” Ung says, laughing.
Chiev often works side-by-side with her longtime husband at their restaurant. He has one cook who works for him.
The Ungs have operated Yamada Teriyaki since 2007, the same year they took a family vacation to Disneyland. Standing in his restaurant, Ung proudly holds a photo of he and his family: It proclaims “Disneyland, Where dreams come true”
Ung offers an extensive menu of about 80 items of not only teriyaki and stir fry but Western and international food as well.
Teriyaki sauce, of course, is a key ingredient. Every restaurant has its own sauce.
Ung’s teriyaki sauce incudes soy sauce, ginger, sugar, powdered garlic, Saki, pineapple juice and 7UP.
“I make sure it tastes good,” he says. “You want to make your customers happy.”
Some of what makes his customers happiest are his hot spicy chicken, Pad Thai, fried rice and his own creation, Oriental Chicken Salad.
I tried the chicken pot stickers, with tea. The flavors came through and the spices weren’t overpowering.
A customer walks in.
“What can I do for you?” Ung asks, laughing easily with the man.
“One Philly with fries to go,” he calls out to his cook.
Tukwila’s mayor, Jim Haggerton, visits successful businesses throughout Tukwila. When he stops by the visit Yamada Teriyaki, he’ll order the Mongolian beef plate, which he describes as “very tasty with a mix of beef and vegetables.”
“The Ungs can be very proud of their background, their family and their contributions to both the residential and business communities in Tukwila,” said Haggerton.
Ung’s wife and sons tell him that maybe it’s time to relax.
“Daddy, you’re old now. Don’t work too hard. Just get up and relax,” his sons say.
But the time goes fast in the restaurant, taking orders and doing prep work. His customers are like friends and he enjoys the socializing. He wants the community to know that he serves dinner, too.
He knows what he’ll do once he says goodbye to his restaurant.
“If I retire, I want to volunteer,” he says. He’s already given back to the community, preparing food for community events and donating a Buddha to the Buddhist temple in Tukwila.
He could interpret for residents who don’t speak the native language, just like he did in the refugee camps on Thailand.
“I like to volunteer back to my community,” he says. “I live in my Tukwila city. I know everybody.”
Ung found opportunity and success in America and his wish that his sons do the same has come true.
Hernandez’s friendship with the Ungs goes back to that first meeting in 2000. Over the years, the Ungs shared their cultural festivals with Hernandez.
“Thong and his wife are proud examples of immigrants who have gone through great hardships to achieve the American dream by working hard to raise a family, own their own home, and put four sons through college,” says Hernandez.
WHERE: 345 Andover Park E., Tukwila
HOURS: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Sunday