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Published: December 25th 2017
I have this vision of Jim Thompson that embodies just about everything I think of when I think of Southeast Asia: interesting, exotic, and more than a little mysterious.
A few facts are incontrovertible: He was born in 1906, and attended Princeton. He was a working architect in New York, and then became director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1941, he abruptly quit his job and joined the Delaware National Guard. He was married, but about six months after the wedding, the military sent him overseas. The marriage did not survive the war. During World War Two he was recruited into the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, and served in Southeast Asia. When the war ended, he was assigned to the American Legation in Thailand. He liked Thailand, and when he left the service he decided to stay. He died in Malaysia in 1967.
At this point, things become a little more open to interpretation. He had a house by one of the canals in Bangkok. Some people say he built it himself, but actually he bought six traditional Thai houses, disassembled them, and brought them by barge to his land along
the canal where he reassembled them, adding small rooms or hallways between them to make one house.
One day he became interested in the old village across the canal from his house. Baan Krua Nua was, and continues to be, one of the largest Muslim communities in Bangkok. It was also a village of traditional silk weavers. Thompson was captivated by the beautiful cloth these weavers turned out, and brought some of it back to New York to be used in costumes for the Broadway play “The King and I.”
Thai silk was a big hit back in New York. The silk industry in Thailand at that time was at a low point, almost to the point of disappearing. It was pretty much a cottage industry fueled by individual weavers who worked from home, and when cheaper fabrics began to be imported from Europe, silk production went into a deep decline.
Thompson decided to try to revitalize the Thai silk industry, and to that end he started the Thai Silk Company with a few of his friends. He was adamant, though, that 51% of the company be owned by Thai nationals. He promoted Thai silk to the
fashion world, and his silks were featured in Vogue magazine. Along the way he became part owner of the Oriental Hotel, one of the grand hotels of Asia on a par with Raffles. Somerset Maugham wrote “A Gentleman in the Parlor” at the Oriental while suffering from malaria.
In March of 1967, he went to The Cameroon Highlands in Malaysia with Constance Mangskau, a longtime friend, and Dr. and Mrs. Ling, friends of his who owned a bungalow in the Highlands. Mangskau later said he was uncharacteristically subdued and irritable. March 24, 1967 was Easter Sunday, and the four friends attended church, though Thompson was reluctant to go.
That afternoon, the Lings and Constance went to their respective rooms for a nap. Thompson said he wanted to go for a walk, and his friends waved good bye to him as he walked down the gravel path. They never saw him again.
They had expected him to be back by 5 o’clock, in time for afternoon tea. When he didn’t show up, Dr. Ling drove to the golf club to see if maybe he had stopped there for a drink. No one at the club had seen him.
When questioned later, the Lings reported that they had heard the sound of an aluminum chair being dragged across the veranda, and a few minutes later, the sound of footsteps on the gravel path.
The official search went on for eleven days. Over 500 people engaged in looking for Thompson, including The US Army, the Malaysian Army, the Malaysian police, a team of Gurkhas, plus missionaries, school children, reward seekers, and a tribe of Orang Asil, known for their skill in tracking.
He was never found. The theories about his disappearance range from the plausible to the unlikely to the outright fanciful.
Some people say he simply wandered off the path and got lost, but Thompson had been in Southeast Asia for decades, and was an accomplished hiker. Some say he was kidnapped, but no ransom note was ever delivered. Some say he was abducted by Communists to get him to publicly renounce the US policy in Vietnam. There is speculation that he was sent to Viet Nam by the CIA on a secret mission, even though his disapproval of the war was well known. Some say his business rivals had him murdered, though his body was
never found. Some say he defected to the Communists as a protest against the US involvement in the war in Viet Nam, or maybe he was conspiring with the Communists in order to overthrow the Thai regime.
A couple of months later, Thompson’s sister, Katherine Thompson Woods, was brutally murdered in her home in suburban Philadelphia. No link between her murder and Thompson’s disappearance was found, and her murder remains unsolved. The house was ransacked, but nothing of value was taken. Some speculated that the murderer was looking for something Thompson may have left with her.
Today Jim Thompson’s house is open to the public, and remains largely the way it was when he was last seen. It is a beautiful traditional teak house, though much larger than traditional Thai homes. It remains a loving repository of Thompson’s impressive Asian art collection. It is now maintained by The James H. W. Thompson Foundation. *Note
- Photos are prohibited inside the house, so I wasn't able to capture the beautiful art and interesting furnishing.
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Klong Saen Saep
Have you been on these canal boats? This is my favorite way of getting around Bangkok, especially when I lived there during the pre-subway days. The westbound boat gets you directly to the Golden Mount, and the eastbound boat (you have to change boats at Pratunam) takes you to the aircraft graveyard.
I haven't ridden the canal boats yet, but I have used the commuter ferry - it's a great way to get up-river, or down-river as the case may be.
Home and Away
I was a high school student in the Cameron Highlands in 1967...
and we spent three days walking jungle paths in search of Jim Thompson. For our efforts the Thai Silk CO. donated 400m of silk to cover our yearbooks. Earlier, my Dad has helped Jim Thompson find the villages in northeast Thailand that still wove silk cloth. You can read about this in my blog covering that time. Thanks for the memories.
Thank you for that memory. The Jim Thompson story has always fascinated me, and it's great to hear from someone who has a personal connection to those events.
D MJ Binkley
Dave and Merry Jo Binkley
Tracking Jim Thompson
Love your blogsand the telling of this story.... love hearing the history of the Silk Trade and some back story about Jim Thompson. Really enjoyed this.