For some Cambodians in Houston, water spinach provides a figurative and literal lifeline
In a small farming village hidden down dirt roads among shrubs and tall grass, everyone's sleeping, and the rain won't stop. It's early afternoon on a Tuesday near Rosharon, a small town 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.
Afternoon is when the only sounds flitting across this intensely insular and homogeneous community of Cambodian farmers are the warbles of swamp frogs and the cackle of a smoldering trash fire. Mobile homes, their frames expanded with slabs of corrugated iron and long, slanting awnings, line the dirt roads. They look almost exactly as they would 9,000 miles away in Southeast Asia. "Little Cambodia," villagers call this place. But looming behind the rusting shacks is something you wouldn't find anywhere in Cambodia: dozens and dozens of greenhouses.
See also: Slide show: Cambodian Weed
See also: Slide show: Cambodian Weed
Perhaps ninety Cambodian families live here, but like so many other mysteries coursing through this village, no one's really sure how many there are. Some say fifty. Some say 120. The Cambodians cringe at exactness. In a community completely dependent on cultivating and exporting a prohibited — and highly profitable — plant, ambiguity and secrecy are crucial to survival. You can't trust anyone, not the other villagers and especially not newcomers like Johnny Bopho. He and the other sharks moved to town around six years ago with big-city entrepreneurialism and a rapacious business plan to wring a fortune from what, by every measure, is just a weed. But a weed that has so consumed this village that it's all anyone seems to talk about, all anyone thinks about. It's omnipresent, heaped in large piles outside most homes, stuck to the bottoms of shoes, poking out of the mouth of a passerby.
They call it a lot of names: trakuon in Khmer, ong choy in Mandarin, rau muong in Vietnamese, water spinach in English. The plant has a spindly stalk, swallowed in leaves shaped like 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 has added one more name to the list — "noxious weed" — spurring states like Iowa, Vermont and Arizona to outlaw it.
In 2007, cultivation under permit was allowed in Texas. Before that, water spinach was banned outright, though farmers here have clandestinely grown it for decades employing, incredibly enough, butcher knives and scissors — exactly as in Cambodia. It's hellish, monotonous work, leaving shoulders stooped and hands gnarled. But newcomers like Johnny have unleashed modern machinery on the village: tractors, ATVs, behemoth coolers, anything that can maximize output and crush other operations.
This dichotomy, along with the escalating competition, awakened what has become the community's dominant conflict. No one here seems to like, let alone trust, anybody else. This isn't the pastoral pocket of Southeast Asian farmers that authorities may think it is, but 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 bizarre little village has been trapped inside some sort of libertarian dystopia where every farmer competes with everyone else in the absence of any mutual agreements or government intervention.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department says if you find water spinach — essential in scores of Asian dishes — in any restaurant or grocery store in the state, it almost certainly came from here. Beyond that, the area's water spinach melts into a little-understood underground economy, scattering across the nation inside semi-trucks bound for places like Nebraska, Michigan and Oklahoma and ultimately arriving on someone's platter. And that's where the demand is. From the West Village to Sunset Boulevard, Asian restaurateurs who care about authenticity, say chefs like Seattle instructor Gregg Shiosaki, need water spinach for soups and stir-fries.
The trade to get it there works like an ethnic conveyor belt: The Cambodians, Hmong and Laotians grow the crop and then sell it for 50 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. This is sometimes done legally, with permits. Sometimes not. Last year, a Houston wholesaler, L & V Food Supply, was fined $17,000 for illegally taking water spinach to Oklahoma. May Produce Company out of Rosemead, California, smuggled it to Minnesota in 2010, the USDA says. A different company, May Food Produce Wholesale, located in Houston, was asked to pay $12,500 in 2006 for allegedly violating federal regulations by transporting it to Wichita, Kansas, according to public records. A representative for the Houston company responded: "That was a long time ago."
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 is impossible, the richer you get. Johnny Bopho, who says he amassed a business acumen from decades in the drug trade, moves a staggering 10,000 pounds of water spinach every week across Texas and to Oklahoma. He hustles the plant like 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 — 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. Tila's family was the first to commercialize water spinach in California, he said, during the 1970s — meaning they sold it on a large scale after buying it from local farmers.
"It's the way it eats versus other greens. It's sweeter and more delicate, crisp and refreshing. Bok choy [Chinese cabbage] is your Toyota; ong choy is the Mercedes." And everyone wants to drive a Mercedes. The demand for water spinach exploded in the last decade, riding America's burgeoning Asian population and interest in the region's delicacies. You don't have to drive far to find a Vietnamese restaurant in most American cities: Houston alone has roughly 200. Tila says the crop has gone for $20 per pound in California, supplied by local farmers who guard their businesses like "the Mafia."
Texas Parks & Wildlife estimates that the local water spinach industry churns out $1 million every year, but farmers say it's worth ten 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 like 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. Already the Cambodians had a huge advantage in a very specific market. There are only two other large communities pushing water spinach through the United States: one in California, the other in Florida. But like 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.
But now, the heightened competition, as well as the nascent realization that 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 specially pervasive in this community, where your neighbors are also your rivals, and the more successful they are, the smaller the scraps that remain.
The Village, as locals call it, doesn't really have a name. It's considered part of Rosharon by officials, but that moniker isn't correct. Rosharon is miles away, an unincorporated splash of Small Town America where drivers may stop, eat at a restaurant, ask for directions. That would never happen in The Village. Only two county roads lead to 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 greenhouses in The Village. The destruction stirred a sense of benevolence in residents as they took each other in. "We help each other," one farmer told The Facts of Brazoria County.
But that was years ago. Today it's 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, the greenhouses have been rebuilt, and Johnny Bopho's on his second Miller Lite. His cell rings every few minutes, and Johnny prowls his mobile home, drinking beer, talking. Like most Southeast Asians, when Johnny uses English, words get clipped. "Five" becomes "Fii." "Most" shrivels to "mo." But despite the language, despite the accent, what Johnny speaks is pure hustle.
An Oklahoma customer is on the line, and Johnny, a sharp-jawed 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?" Johnny, 45, hangs up the phone and says, "Every week I got mo' customer callin' me." It shows. Johnny moved into this mobile home a few weeks ago — his third house in the area — and the interior offers significant contrast to the Cambodian shacks. In modern American taste, there's a flat-screen television and black leather couch. But for the water spinach and the greenhouses, it could be in any suburb.
This divide in lifestyles is vital to explaining the problems Johnny has had with other villagers. He can't understand them, whether economically or culturally. And though Johnny won't say it outright, he thinks the Cambodians are somewhat backward. You can hear it in his voice as he climbs into his Mitsubishi Fuso delivery truck: contempt. "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."
Or perhaps it isn't a matter of intelligence or hatred, but distrust. Whispers follow Johnny. Some people don't believe his stories. Johnny says he grew up trolling Chinatowns on both coasts, dealing drugs. Johnny says he used to run a whorehouse in New York for a gang called the Ghost Shadows. Johnny says he's killed people. But like almost everything involving Johnny — 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.
"Mok agrah," villager Sameth Nget calls him — two-faced. Johnny says he first came here in 2006, but even that's disputed. Numerous people, like trucker Dy Pham, said he's been around much longer, maybe even fifteen years. Johnny told Nget, who harvests the most water spinach in The Village, that he once spent ten years in prison — another lie. He's never been incarcerated. Johnny says he generates more than $1 million a 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 Johnny, 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, he reported everyone for growing water spinach illegally, bringing in the regulators. "Does that make me a tattle?" Johnny said. "I guess so." He later added: "This isn't my retirement, and I don't take government hel' 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 Johnny's workers are stooped over water spinach. Butcher knives shimmer in their hands. Boxes and boxes of water spinach are arrayed before them. Neither Johnny nor any of the workers knows how the weed first got to the United States, but Chinese historian Ji Han first mentioned it in 304 AD 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 — four 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 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 also tastes pretty good. In the Vietnam War, Viet Cong carried dried water spinach with them on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and 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."
In all, as many as 2 million people — one-fifth of Cambodia's population — died during the Khmer Rouge's reign, either of starvation or by execution, in quite possibly the most radical social experiment in history. The cities were emptied and everyone was cast into agrarian slavery in the countryside to reclaim an identity leaders called "pure Khmer." Anyone suspected of education or subterfuge was killed, leaving a profoundly traumatized and unskilled population to rebuild the county after Pol Pot's fall in 1979. Today Cambodia is still decades behind its neighbors Vietnam and Thailand in terms of development and international prestige.
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 Hispanics, 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. But the complexities of modern America are many. Laws and taxes lurk everywhere, both infinitesimal and convoluted, and were difficult for the refugees to comprehend. Cambodia is bereft of regulation. So the refugees fled Houston, and America, and made their own Cambodia in the countryside.
This was an era of simplicity, before the economic wolves infiltrated the town or the authorities demanded that 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, the newcomers began materializing in The Village in Rosharon. 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. In The Village, you could dispel the trappings of memory and time. In The Village, you could make a fortune.
This type of talk holds great sway among Asian refugees and immigrants, according to scholarly research. Asian Americans new to the United States, especially refugees of the Vietnam War, have shown a remarkable propensity for entrepreneurialism because, quite simply, they had no choice, writes C.N. Le, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, in Asian American Assimilation: Ethnicity, Immigration, and Socioeconomics. Many of them spoke little English, and employers often didn't recognize their experience and education, exiling them to non-traditional industries. So they opened Asian markets and restaurants, got into gangs like Johnny, or, as in several separate communities in the United States, grew water spinach.
Even today, if recent migratory patterns are any indication, myths of warmth and water spinach still elicit something visceral in Cambodians. Over the last decade, New York City's Cambodian population, for instance, has tumbled from around 7,000 to 3,000, local immigrants say. Florida's Khmer population, meanwhile, has swelled from roughly 2,400 to 6,200, the U.S. Census Bureau found. In that time frame, the number of permitted farmers in The Village has increased 50 percent, from around 60 to around 90 today. Nearly ten new operations have started in the last 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 Central Valley, California. Some Hmong launched production in central Iowa. With the exception of the community in California, all these enclaves clashed with the states over their right to cultivate and sell a federally designated noxious weed, resulting in much cultural confusion and a few hilarious white-man moments. Texas Parks & Wildlife, especially, appeared flabbergasted when dozens of rural Cambodians suddenly crashed a 2009 meeting in Austin.
"Okay, Ruby," Commissioner Peter Holt told one of the farmers when she asked to speak, according to the meeting's minutes. "I'd better pronounce it" — pause — "V-O-N-G-S-A-L-Y, I think? Think so." Then, "Michael Lee? I think — am I — yes, Michael Lee?" Later, "Patrick Ong...O-N-G? Patrick? You're all right? Okay."
Despite the puzzlement, the rural Asian farmers from every state have invariably trotted out similar arguments, which went beyond weeds and regulation and touched 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 over 100 families in Rosharon that got no skill, no education," one participant, Chelsea Tang, told the Texas agency. "They depend on water spinach."
Eventually, the Florida and Texas agencies buckled and allowed production after they decided that 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 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 "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 the things we're particularly concerned about."
Al Tasker of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service said: "It surprises me that there's that much going on. It's an awful lot of product for something that's federally regulated." Seemingly indicative of what's 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 Sameth Nget, a portly, garrulous Cambodian stricken with diabetes, to abandon his shop and trucking career near Boston and move his entire family down 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 Nget hadn't talked to for a while. Nget explained he wasn't so good and asked how his friend was.
"I'm in Texas!" he 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 Johnny. "You can make a lot of money down here," Nget recalls Johnny saying. "This place is hot." Johnny 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 thirty acres from Johnny'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 down the road into another relative's house. 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 each other," 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, Johnny, 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," Johnny said he had realized. "But they need me. They need me to sell the trakuon." And, if observed through Johnny's eyes, they did. Water spinach had been harvested for two decades before Johnny arrived, and yet the villagers were still poor. What's more, the poverty had infected their children. Girls as young as fourteen 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," Johnny recalls one Cambodian woman telling him when he first arrived and suggested farming improvements. "I've been here for twenty years doing this, and you don't know how to grow and sell trakuon."
"Twenty years?" Johnny asked her. "If I'd been growing trakuon for twenty 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, Johnny 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 Johnny had to control the product.
So he called a meeting at the temple. Everybody went. Listening to Johnny deliver that talk, Nget remembers thinking, "He wants to be a millionaire. He wants to be big guy." Johnny 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 Johnny — 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.
Johnny says he lost $40,000. It's unclear if that's true. But what is true is that Johnny 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," Jet Tila calls that mindset. In Cambodia, it's common for individual shops, all of which sell exactly the same thing, to amass in a dense cluster and compete. Everyone's in it for themselves, and everyone mimics everyone else. Johnny'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 Johnny hasn't forgotten or forgiven. On a recent Friday morning, Johnny 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 Johnny rage and perspire, it became clear that he, just like 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 — like 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 like today, though, it's better not to think like that. Johnny 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 like today, when Johnny 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.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.