Cambodian Weed

How a small village outside Houston influences the Asian restaurants of Little Saigon, Long Beach and beyond

All this has culminated in an extraordinary business opportunity for this Cambodian village in America. But as with every hot business venture, this village has attracted predators and economic hit men. The early settlers, ravaged by memories of genocide and more intent on peace than wealth, simply didn't grasp the economic possibilities. Now, the heightened competition, as well as the nascent realization there's money for the getting, has brought out something primal and tragic in the people here. In some ways, water spinach has threaded this community's narrative with suspicion and betrayal. "They're jealous here!" said Saruth Kuy, who moved here in the mid-1980s. When asked how much money she makes, she replied, "Why do you want to know?"

"The people in the village are greedy—100 percent," explained another resident, who declined to give his name. Families have even divided over water spinach. Saloeurn Yin, who moved here from North Carolina, won't speak with her aunt and uncle anymore. "Some people don't want a permit," she said. "They think they don't need one. But this is America. This isn't Cambodia. You have to follow the rules."

In any isolated rural community, arguments and misunderstandings occur often, but they seem especially pervasive in this community, where your neighbors are also your rivals and the more successful they are, the smaller the scraps that remain.

Water spinach: green gold
Daniel Kramer
Water spinach: green gold
Johnny Bopho, the rau muong slinger
Daniel Kramer
Johnny Bopho, the rau muong slinger

* * *

Only two county roads lead to the Village, which is what the Cambodians call it, and from their intersection extend rows of mobile homes with crooked mailboxes and peeling paint. Except for a yellow-and-pink Buddhist temple, it's the sort of place one sees on the Weather Channel, broken, after a bad storm—which is exactly what happened in 2008, when Hurricane Ike razed most of the Village's greenhouses. The destruction stirred a sense of benevolence in residents as they took one another in. "We help each other," one farmer told The Facts of Brazoria County.

But that was years ago. Today, at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, the greenhouses have been rebuilt and Bopho is on his second Miller Lite. His cell rings every few minutes as Bopho prowls his mobile home, drinking beer and talking. An Oklahoma customer is on the line, and the sharp-jawed, 45-year-old Laotian with boyishly tousled, raven hair is blending Vietnamese and English. He sounds frustrated. "Put my guy on. How much you wan'? How much you charge?" Bopho hangs up the phone.

"Every week, I got mo' customer callin' me," he says. It shows. He moved into this mobile home a few weeks ago—his third house in the area—and the interior offers a significant contrast to the Cambodian shacks. In modern American taste, there's a flat-screen television and black-leather couch. Except for the water spinach and greenhouses, it could be in any suburb.

This divide in lifestyles is vital to explaining the problems Bopho has had with other villagers. He can't understand them, whether economically or culturally. And though he won't say it outright, he thinks the Cambodians are somewhat backward. You can hear the contempt in his voice as he climbs into his Mitsubishi Fuso delivery truck. "I'm hated by half the people here," he says, puttering down the dirt road. "Maybe I'm smarter than all o' them. Or maybe they stupider than me. I don' know which. I don' want to say."

Perhaps it isn't a matter of intelligence or hatred, but rather distrust. Whispers follow him. Some people don't believe his stories. He says he grew up trolling Chinatowns on both coasts, dealing drugs; that he used to run a whorehouse in New York for a gang called the Ghost Shadows; that he's killed people. But like almost everything involving Bopho—where he really comes from, how much money he makes—these claims are impossible to verify. His public record is immaculate, his financial reports insubstantial.

Villager Sameth Nget calls him "mok agrah"—two-faced. Bopho says he first came here in 2006, but even that's disputed. Numerous people, such as trucker Dy Pham, said he has been around much longer, maybe even 15 years. Bopho told Nget, who harvests the most water spinach in the Village, that he once spent 10 years in prison—another lie. He has never been incarcerated. Bopho says he generates more than $1 million per year in revenue, but his mobile home—though nice—is still a mobile home.

If there is one thing, however, that everyone does agree on about him, it's that he was the one who called the local authorities three years ago after his bid to take control of the Village failed. Out of spite and frustration, Bopho reported everyone for growing water spinach illegally, bringing in the regulators. "Does that make me a tattle?" he asked. "I guess so."

He later added, "This isn't my retirement, and I don't take government [help] like them. This is my life, my profession. I got my family to take care of. And they sell withou' permits and mess up the price. How is that fair for me?"

* * *

Three of Bopho's workers are stooped over water spinach. Butcher knives shimmer in their hands. Boxes and boxes of water spinach are arrayed before them. Neither Bopho nor any of the workers knows how the weed first got to the United States, but Chinese historian Ji Han first mentioned it in A.D. 304 while describing the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

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