Whatever happened to the man who revitalised the Thai silk industry? Did a tiger eat him? Did the CIA do him in? Was some Asian despot responsible, or a jealous lover? Half a century later the mystery of Jim Thompson’s disappearance persists
When you stand in Victor Hugo’s footprints at Hauteville House in Guernsey and gaze across the ocean to his beloved France, you get the sense he just popped out for an icy swim in Havelet Bay. It is the same when you stand in Jim Thompson’s bedroom. Did the mysterious American who saved the Thai silk industry just go for a tryst with the diplomatic wife he romanced? Is he having noodles down the leafy soi, or a clandestine meeting with his CIA minder?
Hugo lived for 15 years in exile in St Peter Port, writing Les Miserables standing at his desk and peering through the gloaming at distant France for inspiration. Thompson also lived in self-imposed exile in a house on the klong (canal) from which he could see his faithful silk workers toiling on the opposite bank.
Like Hauteville House, Jim Thompson’s House, a popular tourist attraction in Bangkok is a world steeped in history. Using antique Siam-style houses from the old capital of Ayutthaya and the nearby Ban Krua Muslim neighbourhood, Thompson originally created the compound, now cluttered with new-build meeting rooms and a restaurant.
Peaked roofs formed the perfect chambers to Thompson’s priceless collection of Asian antiques and artifacts. I love the dining room, two antique Chinese majong tables laid with Thai and Chinese ceramics, as if some guests were expected any minute. Trained as an architect, Thompson’s fabled eye melded the Occident with the Orient.
European crystal chandeliers hover over ancient ochre Khmer statues. The entrance hall’s black and white Italian marble floors offset the polished teak and lacquer objects that greet the visitor. The famous rainbow of Jim Thompson silk cushions, a staple in all fine modern Thai and expat houses, must be his lasting signature. The rich colours and textures make for the ideal detail statement and at R300 each they are a small investment in homemaking.
Soaring four-metre ceilings make a grand canopy for the sitting area, lined with murals and statues. This is indoor/outdoor living at its best, with the sweeping terrace, tropical garden and Saen Saeb canal, which comes alive in a splashing and none too fragrant aria when a commuter boat passes. The lighting is like a Broadway musical – moody shapes shimmering in the Oriental night space. A focal point is the four windows Thompson transformed into display chambers for Burmese spirit statues, a gift from the old regime.
Famous for his tropical silk shirts, Thompson would find it hard to fit into today’s versions sold in his name. Even the extra large seems a bit trim for the full figured farang but they are beautifully made and priced accordingly.
Thompson introduced the fine silks to Dior and Chanel in the 60s and they became an instant hit in Europe. The late Margaret Thatcher had the emporium opened for a private shopathon one Sunday morning. Her private assistant told me the former British prime minister dropped 20,000 quid on that silk frenzy. When I met Thatcher the next day for a work function I asked her about the haul. “The colours are glorious!” she said. Thatcher’s minions had to drag her away to a service at nearby Christ Church in her honour. Mammon in swirling silk was no lesser god that day!
Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Kate Moss, and Beyonce have all traipsed through the spacious shop, which also includes a furniture floor where you can score elegant sofas at a price fit for a princess or former PM.
The Thai Silk Company Limited, founded in 1951, is still a thriving enterprise. The house is owned by a foundation launched a decade after Thompson’s disappearance. It engages in corporate social investment, using funds from the house museum complex to support charities and education projects.
While a visit to Victor Hugo’s grave in the Paris Cimetiere de Pere-Lachaise, closes the circle of curiosity, no such final resting place for Jim Thompson has ever been found. He just vanished in 1967 during an afternoon walk in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. Did a tiger eat him? Did the CIA do him in? Was some Asian despot responsible, or a jealous lover? Nearly half a century later the mystery remains.
The confluence of art, commerce, fashion, community and mystery is what makes Jim Thompson’s legend such a compelling narrative. The only jarring note is the throng of tourists in flip-flops (Aussies and South Africans) or Birkenstocks (the Europeans). Easily accessible via Skytrain, the house is two blocks from Paragon, the massive shopping mall.