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.

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.
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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 nontraditional 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.

Johnny Bopho, 45, one of the most disliked men in this village, was born in Savannakhet, Laos, and belongs to one of the only Laotian families in this community.
Daniel Kramer
Johnny Bopho, 45, one of the most disliked men in this village, was born in Savannakhet, Laos, and belongs to one of the only Laotian families in this community.
Farmers sell each bundle of water spinach, which weighs around one pound, at a price of between 50 and 90 cents. It takes hours to cut, clean and package one 30-pound box of water spinach.
Daniel Kramer
Farmers sell each bundle of water spinach, which weighs around one pound, at a price of between 50 and 90 cents. It takes hours to cut, clean and package one 30-pound box of 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.

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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.

 

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

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!!!

 

 
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