In a Hidden Texas Farming Village, the Making (and Selling) of a Cambodian Bumper Crop

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And, oh, yeah: It also tastes pretty good. In the Vietnam War, Vietcong 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 impossibly 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 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 entrepreneurship 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.

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 10 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.

"OK, 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? OK."

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Terrence McCoy
Contact: Terrence McCoy