Cambodian Weed

The invasive plant water spinach is banned in some states — and essential to Asian cooking. In a small village outside Houston, relocated Cambodians are growing and selling it across state lines, up North, out West, hoping to get rich.

"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. Bak 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 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.

Like Yin Vuth, most farmers exclusively grow water spinach inside greenhouses, which can become suffocatingly hot in the middle of the day, reaching around 120 degrees.
Daniel Kramer
Like Yin Vuth, most farmers exclusively grow water spinach inside greenhouses, which can become suffocatingly hot in the middle of the day, reaching around 120 degrees.
Yin Vuth, who's harvested water spinach in The Village for about 30 years, takes hundreds of pounds of the crop into Houston on Thursdays but says he makes substantially less money today than he did years ago.
Daniel Kramer
Yin Vuth, who's harvested water spinach in The Village for about 30 years, takes hundreds of pounds of the crop into Houston on Thursdays but says he makes substantially less money today than he did years ago.

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 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-screened television and black leather couch. But for the water spinach and the greenhouses, it could be in any suburb.

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11 comments
jemer34051
jemer34051

MEDICINAL PROPERTIES?!?!?!  This "weed" is in need of being researched!  If it's good for HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE -- I WANT SOME!!!!!

ploch_semperfi
ploch_semperfi

Wow, this person who wrote this article really needs to be fired! I can'tbelieve the editor would let this type of scrap get released. I can see a retraction at hand. He really needs to do further research. He sounds very pisses off writing this article. Maybe this is a personal vendetta of Mr. Terrence McCoy. Hmmm......

mscrazyb23
mscrazyb23

this story is very upsetting. there are many people that have traveled here from many states to try and build a life for their families. i really don't see the harm in growing the water spinach. it's already gotten to the point where they are required to get permits and so the people have. they really have no choice since most of the families in that community that is their only source of income. its sad since over half of the community speaks little english let alone can understand it fully. plus little to no education. these people wake up before the sunrises just to beat the heat and some even stay up until midnight. very few families use this as a second source of income just to make due with providing for their families. its is very hard labor. just about everyone there that farms the water spinach are over the age of 45. i don't think they care about getting rich but just being able to make money and provide for their families.

ann.gwaltney
ann.gwaltney

If this is not indigenous to this country then it is a weed

 

PukThuk
PukThuk

You are making something out of nothing. Nobody in "Little Cambodia" is doing anything illegal. People are working hard labor everyday to put food on the table for their families. They have their permits and they never try to bring it across state lines. It's people like Johnny that will do such a thing and try to blame others so that they can get shut down. This dude have only been in the village for a few years while other's came here as refugees. This Johnny guy is a greedy man. He will do whatever and say whatever to try to take over the water spinach business like he is the Pablo Escobar of water spinach. If you want to know who's committing the illegal activities within this business, you might want to drive to his house and see that he hires illegal immigrants to work for him. Yes, and I mean more than one of them.

 

PukThuk
PukThuk

And the only person who hopes to get rich off of this is Johnny. Everybody else is more focused on providing for their family because they can't get a regular 9-5 either because they don't speak english, have no education, or are seniors. I can't believe I am even seeing this artcle. It's a shame. And to the guy who wrote this article, SMH!!!

 

madogzs
madogzs

Ahhhh

There they go again, 

Houston Press Writers just can't leave well enough alone

Now all we are going to get are a Bunch of Very Angry Cambodian Mothers

 

Mike1130
Mike1130

Cambodian Weed........Water spinach? I thought this was about the real weed, the stuff you smoke......figures.

FoodGrade
FoodGrade

@tastybits Water spinach kolaches?

miyashay
miyashay

@tastybits @HoustonPress totally had some ong choy last night

 
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