Cambodian Weed

Cambodian Weed

In a small farming village hidden down dirt roads and among shrubs and tall grass, everyone's sleeping, and the rain won't stop. It's early afternoon on a Tuesday near Rosharon, south of Houston, and the downpour has canvassed the paths with deep crevices and pockmarks, making driving all but impossible. Not that anyone here would ever be driving at 2 p.m. Afternoon is when they sleep.

The cash crop here has a lot of names: trakuon in Khmer, ong choy in Mandarin, rau muong in Vietnamese, water spinach in English. It has a spindly stalk, swallowed in leaves resembling a dog's tongue, and a maddening resilience. During the 1990s, water spinach nearly strangled some waterways in the Everglades with a canopy of vegetation—"Impenetrable," Florida reports said—until state environmentalists found a pesticide potent enough to eradicate it. Since then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has added it to its list of noxious weeds, spurring states such as Iowa, Vermont and Arizona to outlaw it.

But in this farming village—lined with mobile homes whose frames are expanded with slabs of corrugated iron and long, slanting awnings—it has become a cash crop par none.

A community of about 90 Cambodian families has set up dozens and dozens of greenhouses here and dominates the water spinach market in the United States. In 2007, cultivation under permit was allowed in Texas. Before that, water spinach was banned outright, though farmers have clandestinely grown it for decades. It's hellish, monotonous work, leaving shoulders stooped and hands gnarled. But newcomers have unleashed modern machinery on the village—tractors, ATVs, behemoth coolers, anything that can maximize output and crush other operations.

The water spinach is omnipresent, heaped in large piles outside most homes, stuck to the bottoms of shoes, poking out of the mouth of a passerby. But no one here seems to like—let alone trust—anyone else. This isn't the pastoral pocket of Southeast Asian farmers that authorities may think it is, but rather the epicenter of an emerging, combative and largely informal market. Both local and national regulators, seemingly unfamiliar with Southeast Asia, dismiss water spinach as either an invasive species or some quaint Asian oddity and have misunderstood the vegetable's importance, allowing nearly unchecked and untaxed movement and industry expansion. Meanwhile, this little village has been trapped inside some sort of libertarian dystopia in which every farmer competes with everyone else in the absence of any mutual agreements or government intervention.

The area's water spinach melts into a little-understood underground economy, scattering across the nation inside semi-trucks bound for places such as Little Saigon, Michigan and Long Beach's Little Phnomh Penh neighborhood, ultimately arriving on someone's platter. And that's where the demand is. From Houston to Bolsa Avenue, Asian restaurateurs who care about authenticity need water spinach for soups and stir-fries.

The trade to get it there works similar to an ethnic conveyor belt: The Cambodians, Hmong and Laotians grow the crop, and then sell it for 50 cents to 90 cents per pound to the Vietnamese and Thai, who run the wholesale transport system. The wholesalers cart it to the markets in Texas and beyond, which are predominantly governed by the Chinese. The grocery stores then sell it to the consumer for anywhere from $2 to $10. This entire process must occur within five days, before the plant spoils. And the higher you get in the hierarchy, or the deeper you move water spinach into cold climates where cultivation's impossible, the richer you get.

Johnny Bopho moves a staggering 10,000 pounds of water spinach every week across Texas and to Oklahoma. He hustles the plant as though it's a narcotic, saying if you cut out wholesalers and ship your own, then you're in the real money. Or if you can somehow control the product supply—which is what he tried to do years ago but failed at—you can build a fiefdom.

"Ong Choy is definitely considered one of the highest-valued vegetables," said Jet Tila, who teaches Southeast Asian cuisine in Southern California and whose family was a pioneer in Orange County's Thai-restaurant scene (it continues to run Royal Thai in Laguna Beach). Tila's family was the first to commercialize water spinach in California, he said, during the 1970s—meaning it was sold on a large scale after being bought from local farmers. Tila says the crop has gone for $20 per pound in California, supplied by local farmers who guard their businesses like "the mafia."

"It's the way it eats versus other greens," he says. "It's sweeter and more delicate, crisp and refreshing. Bok choy is your Toyota; ong choy is the Mercedes."

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department estimates the local water spinach industry churns out $1 million every year, but farmers say it's worth 10 times that. They're just a little fuzzy on their records and taxes. "All cash," one villager said. "It's all cash. Keeps things under the radar." How an apparently booming industry has gone unnoticed only becomes obvious after spending a lot of time here: No one's watching. Farmers inhabit a separate world in every sense.

Authorities such as Texas Parks & Wildlife, openly uninterested in the trade in water spinach, simply do not care how much gets produced. And then, lubricating the trade even more, the USDA stopped investigating the illegal transportation of noxious weeds this year because of budgetary reasons. Like something out of a Joseph Heller novel, USDA spokesman Dave Sacks explained the lapse in oversight: "We're not not aware of it."

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.

* * *

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.

A member of the morning glory genus, ipomoea aquatica soon crept into Southeast Asia and India, along the way showing how it's become one of the most prolific invasive species in the world. Capable of incredible growth—4 inches per day—ipomoea can blanket waterways in a matter of days with a thick tangle of vegetation. The Philippine government calls water spinach its second-most problematic plant.

But unlike other invasives, this weed carries powerful medicinal properties. Ipomoea can treat constipation, ringworm, fever, arsenic or opium poisoning, and high blood pressure, and it produces a chemical similar to insulin, environmental research has shown. Even more amazing, the vegetable can purify water, even ponds contaminated with heavy metals, by absorbing pollutants found in farm drainage and construction waste.

And, oh, yeah: It tastes pretty good. In the Vietnam War, Vietcong carried dried water spinach with them on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Even when food was at its scarcest during the Khmer Rouge famines that swept Cambodia in the 1970s, water spinach was accessible, etching an indelible memory in the genocide's survivors. "We didn't have meat," said Born Kea, 74, black-toothed and uncertain on his feet. "We didn't have other vegetables, but we did have trakuon."

More than 150,000 Cambodians eventually came as refugees to the United States, part of a broader trend that has remade American demographics. Roughly 10 million Asians have immigrated here since 1965, and today, more Asians arrive than any other ethnic group—even Latinos, according to a study by the Pew Research Center in June. The Cambodians in Houston began what they thought would be a happier life, and in virtually every way, it was. This was an era of simplicity, before the economic wolves infiltrated the town or the authorities demanded everyone get a permit to farm. People were poor, yes, but they found some modicum of sanity in the work. "It was our crop for our people," resident Chheav Peng said. The Village was a place for forgetting—the genocide, American bureaucracy, intractable poverty—where dogs ran collarless and no one cared if the music was too loud or you had a few numbers on a piece of paper to grow a weed.

* * *

One day years ago, from across the nation, newcomers began materializing in the Village. From Boston, Philadelphia, Ohio, the Bronx, a smattering of Cambodians embarked on a journey spanning hundreds of miles to arrive here, at this confluence of rural Cambodia and impoverished Texas. In the Village, the rumors went, you could escape the cold and eat real Khmer food. You could dispel the trappings of memory and time. You could make a fortune.

Even today, if recent migratory patterns are any indication, myths of warmth and water spinach still elicit something visceral in Cambodians. Over the past decade, the number of permitted farmers in the Village has increased 50 percent, from around 60 to around 90 today. Nearly 10 new operations have started in the past year alone. How many more there are, without permits, is anyone's guess.

A community of Vietnamese water spinach farmers sprouted in southern Florida. Another in California's Central Valley. Some Hmong launched production in central Iowa. With the exception of the community in California, all these enclaves clashed with the states over the right to cultivate and sell a federally designated noxious weed. Rural Asian farmers from every state have invariably trotted out similar arguments, which go beyond weeds and regulation and touch on the difficulties of assimilation. Water spinach became a metaphor for something greater. The refrain: This is our culture. We can't get employment otherwise. Your wars brought us here.

"I know [more than] 100 families in Rosharon that got no skill, no education," Chelsea Tang told the Texas agency in 2009. "They depend on water spinach."

Eventually, the Florida and Texas agencies buckled and allowed production after they decided water spinach wasn't an environmental threat after all. The Iowa Department of Agriculture didn't rescind its regulation, a representative said, and the plant is still prohibited. While Texas and Florida permitted farming water spinach, the caveats were fastidious. Farmers needed a permit to grow, sell and transport across state lines, and they had to follow specific packaging guidelines. They needed to maintain exacting quarterly documentation. But then something strange happened. The farmers in Texas were pretty much forgotten, economically at least. No one knew how much the plant could be worth.

Texas Parks & Wildlife representative Luci Cook-Hildreth, who issues water spinach permits, had no idea that more than 40,000 pounds of the weed could clear the Village in one week, calling that figure "wild." "Maybe the farmers can pull a fast one on us," she said. "But [how much they grow] doesn't even fall into the realm of things we're particularly concerned about."

Al Tasker of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service said, "It surprises me there's that much going on. It's an awful lot of product for something that's federally regulated."

Seemingly indicative of what has been an utter misunderstanding of the water spinach trade, Texas game warden Nick Harmon, who monitors the Village, said, "They grow things that I guess would be considered food items in their culture."

But water spinach is apparently much more than that. There's almost something metaphysical about the crop. It was enough to get Nget, a portly, garrulous Cambodian stricken with diabetes, to abandon his shop and trucking career near Boston and move his entire family to Texas. A weed did that.

"Every year, seems like more people come," said Nget, whose journey here carries themes found among most Cambodians who have arrived recently. In 2005, his Boston life was unraveling. Winter was coming, his wife had caught him in an affair with a Wisconsin woman, and gas prices had gone up again. One afternoon, he got a call from a friend whom he hadn't talked to for a while. He explained he wasn't so good and asked how his friend was.

"I'm in Texas!" the friend said. "I'm growing trakuon. The weather's great down here. You need to check it out. Have you ever heard of Rosharon?"

Nget hadn't. But he was looking for a change. So he drove down and started looking at plots of land. That's when he met Bopho. "You can make a lot of money down here," Nget recalled him saying. "This place is hot." Bopho wanted Nget to grow trakuon, then sell it to him so he could take it to the markets and beyond.

Almost immediately, Nget got a loan and bought 30 acres from Bopho's wife for $200,000 and started building greenhouses. Nget pumped all the money he had into the new business and crops. He threw up one greenhouse after another until his back yard looked like something out of The X-Files and he could harvest nearly 5,000 pounds of water spinach per week—more than anyone else. But Nget hadn't considered something. While his growth in production was logical for him—more water spinach meant more business—the surge deluged the markets, lowering prices for everyone.

Then the problems started. Nget's brother-in-law, Nak Lonn, had moved in with him. Nget had asked him to. But as months passed, things stopped working between the brothers. Murmurs gave way to arguments. Money went missing. There were lies. No one could get the price to hold steady. "Everyone's trying to screw everyone," said Robert Thompson, 28, who dates Nget's niece.

Lonn's family eventually moved into another relative's house down the road. Soon, he had his own business, greenhouses and customers. Today, Nget swears he'll never trade with family again. "When it comes to business, we just stay clear of one another," Nget's son, Sophan Soum, said. "We tried our hardest. Taking trakuon from people is just too much of a hassle. Everyone's always complaining."

So Lonn started selling his crops to Nget's major competitor, Bopho, who by this time had already begun implementing a plan that would anoint him king of the Village.

* * *

The scheme involved capturing the water spinach supply. All of it. "The Cambodians don't like me," Bopho said he had realized. "But they need me. They need me to sell the trakuon." And, if observed through his eyes, they did. Water spinach had been harvested for two decades before he arrived, yet the villagers were still poor. What's more, the poverty had infected their children. Girls as young as 14 were having children. Others eschewed farming responsibilities, splayed out on the couch. Most residents languished on food stamps. Bored punks staged petty burglaries.

"You don't understand," Bopho recalls one Cambodian woman telling him when he first arrived and suggested farming improvements. "I've been here for 20 years doing this, and you don't know how to grow and sell trakuon."

"Twenty years?" he asked her. "If I'd been growing trakuon for 20 years, I'd be retired already. I'd be rich. I'm not looking to work the rest of my life." He told her if she wanted to make a lot of money, she should follow him. He had an idea. They'd fix the price of water spinach and establish a monopoly. Applying the business principles of drug trading, Bopho said that if he could control the product supply, he could charge the wholesalers and restaurants substantially more for water spinach, maybe $1.50 per pound, maybe more. Everyone would get more money, he told her. But first, Bopho had to control the product.

So he called a meeting at the temple. Everybody went. Listening to Bopho deliver that talk, Nget remembers thinking, "He wants to be a millionaire. He wants to be big guy." Bopho asked the villagers to let him sell their water spinach. At first, the farmers agreed, but then, in the weeks that followed, the scheme collapsed. Some farmers didn't trust him: He was a newcomer; he wasn't Cambodian. They said they could make more on their own. So they undersold him, propelling other farmers to do the same.

Bopho says he lost $40,000. It's unclear if that's true, but what is true is that he should never have tried to fix prices. Not because such collusion is illegal—though it is—but because the plan was so obviously a terrible one. It doesn't take long to figure out that residents like the Village the way it is—chaotic and inefficient. They want to get rich, sure, but they want to do it as Cambodians.

"Asian economics," Tila calls that mind-set. In Cambodia, it's common for individual shops, all of which sell the same thing, to amass in a dense cluster and compete. Everyone's in it for themselves, and everyone mimics everyone else. Bopho's scheme necessitated an abandonment of that ethos. At some level, cooperation means sacrificing independence, which, even if it does lend greater prosperity, would be anathema to most villagers.

It's a mistake Bopho hasn't forgotten or forgiven. On a recent Friday morning, he was in a dark mood and didn't want to talk. He had turned his phone off; no one knew where he was. When he finally arrived at his house at 9:30 a.m., drinking Miller Lite, his black tank top was matted with sweat. He'd been in the fields and greenhouses since daybreak, threshing and boxing water spinach. He said he didn't have time for disruptions, especially questions about his relationship with other villagers. He's through with them, he says—they do their thing; he does his. "They can kiss my ass," he said, later adding, "I don' care what they say. I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to get rich."

But watching Bopho rage and perspire, it became clear that he, just as everyone else here, probably never will. There are countless frustrations in selling water spinach. It takes hours to clean, prepare and package. Knuckles bloat and split open under the strain. Then, after all that, a pound of the crop gets barely 70 cents in Texas. The cost of a Coke. It's insulting. Most families make far less than $100 per day, and sometimes, they can't even get that. The crop spoils, or the wholesaler, for whatever reason, doesn't want the haul anymore, and hundreds of pounds get burned. Because the crop's not a regulated or publicly traded commodity—such as wheat or cotton—there's no insurance or speculation to assuage risk or buffer losses. Every family in every way is on its own.

On days such as today, though, it's better not to think like that. Bopho has sunk everything into his water spinach business. So he contemplates possibilities. If he could funnel water spinach up north somehow, or build more greenhouses, or find some way to control the price, then he'd make real money. He could retire before his body fails. On days such as today, when he already feels beaten and tired and has a long drive and uncertain prospects ahead, it's better to entertain fantasy. So he loads up his white van, slams the door and creaks down the moonscape dirt road, alone and Dallas-bound.

One of the dozens of greenhouses that grow the prized weed
One of the dozens of greenhouses that grow the prized weed
Daniel Kramer


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