Illegal Cambodian Weed Sales: Authorities Are Clueless

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, hoping to get rich.

"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.

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.

Almost immediately, Nget got a loan and bought 30 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 backyard 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 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," Johnny 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?" Johnny 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, 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 mind-set. 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.

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