Michael Batson

Travel Writer

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Travelogue

Jim Thompson and the Order of the White Elephant - 7 May 2014

When I first visited Jim Thompson’s house a decade ago, I was already much taken with the idea of living in Asia. After seeing the house I was sure I wanted to return. I was envious of Thompson and what he had created, a farang in Asia living his dream, comfortably off. There was also Thompson’s murky past as a WWII operative, full of intrigue and culminating in his eventual disappearance, never to be seen or heard from again. As someone else famous once said, once you’re dead you have got it made.


Thompson’s subsequent fame earned him the title of the Legendary American of Thailand. His house became a celebrated social centre with the nickname ‘the talk of the town.’ Not so much a lost soul like many expats, more like he was marooned in a sanctuary that is part museum, part house, part movie set, part Thai, and part European. He was Lord Jim, a real life incarnation of Conrad’s literary character.


Thompson’s wartime journey took him from OSS agent in North Africa to Europe, Sri Lanka and on to Thailand. By the time he arrived in Bangkok however, Japan had surrendered. The post-war Bangkok Thompson found himself in was a melting pot of intrigue described amongst other things as ‘one huge arms bazaar’, stocked by supplies from surrendered Japanese garrisons and by Allied airdrops to the Seri Thai or Free Thai resistance.  According to academics and authors, Christopher Bailey and Tim Harper, ‘buying arms in Thailand was as easy as buying beer.’ The Filipinos and Burmese also offloaded guns onto the Thai market, and Chinese, Swedes, Czechs and Americans – idealists, freebooters and demobbed Special Forces – were all immersed in the trade. Thompson, they said, invested his profits in his silk business.


And what a business it is with a chain of shops, international distribution networks, over 3,000 employees and a factory based in the industrial city of Korat.


Thompson left the armed forces in 1946 and founded his Thai Silk Company a year later, though another date given is 1948. Officially he quit intelligence work, but it is speculated Thompson never fully disengaged from his previous life and was contacted for various CIA missions during the America’s war in Viet Nam.


He wasn’t the first foreigner to see potential in Thailand’s cottage silk industry. Kametora Toyama, a Japanese, first tried to popularise Thai silk. However, it was Thompson who decided that silk would be popular overseas. Through his connections in New York he began marketing the product as a traditional Siamese material, though the material he created had little relationship to what had previously been produced in the country. But through clever branding and by developing a range of 'Thai' patterns, he managed to establish Thai Silk as a recognisable brand.


Thompson was fascinated by the architecture of old Bangkok, and life along the city’s many waterways. Through his travels in the old city he spotted a piece of land by the Muslim weaving village of Baan Krua. The land was once part of a vast compound for a summer palace, and though right in the heart of the city had retained then as today, the flavour of rural Thailand.


Thompson’s house is part of a complex within a compound and combines several teak buildings, built in traditional Thai architecture. He began building his home in 1958 using parts of existing houses dismantled and moved to the present site most from the ancient capital of Ayutthaya and the large living room from Baan Krua village opposite where it had been a weaver’s house.  The house oozes Somerset Maugham-like charm. One can imagine Thompson and guests, kicking back in linen and silk suits, drinking cocktails and smoking in the tropical evenings.


All up Thompson’s love of all things Thai saw him buy six traditional wooden homes and reconstruct them in his jungle like garden.


One practical feature of the Thai house is the ease with which it can be assembled or taken down. The entire house is built in light, pre-fabricated sections with each section forming a wall. Each wall is then fitted together and hung on the superstructure - a frame of wooden pillars - without nails. In former times, the fact that the house could be taken down and re-assembled with relative ease was well-suited to the indigenous way of life. When families decided to move, as they frequently did, the house would be taken down, stacked on a raft and floated down the nearest khlong to a new location; have house will travel.


The complex is enveloped by beautifully landscaped gardens. In the shade under the bright green vegetation, the open windows appear almost black.  In the shadow of surrounding trees, the house’s inconspicuous façade belies a tastefully decked entry foyer, itself an unconventional architectural feature in Thai houses and a preamble to Thompson’s signature East-meets-West style permeating throughout the house.


A clever lighting arrangement draws your eyes to two wall niches displaying a 17th century standing Buddha and wooden hand-carved figurine. High above your head, a Belgian chandelier glistens from the ceiling, while the floor is laid out with Italian marble tiles, punctuating the heavy wood accents on the walls and indoors staircase.


The raised thresholds around the doorways are designed to keep babies in and evil spirits out. They also acted as a structural aid holding the wall sections firmly in place on their frame. Early settlements of the Thais were largely agricultural communities built along rivers, canals and waterways. Hence the prevent babies and small children from falling into the water, the thresholds of the door were raised.


Thompson filled his house with a variety of items from across Thailand and beyond: Chinese Ming pieces, Belgian glass, Cambodian carvings, Burmese statues, Thai stone images, even a table once used King Rama V of Thailand. One of Thompson’s penchants seems to have been for novel chamber pots, there being quite a few. The bed in the guest room is tiny, as if made for a child. Thompson’s own room contains a cutaway doll’s house made into a race maze for live mice that being a version of live entertainment back in the day.


At the time when Thompson set out to be a serious antique collector, the beautiful antiques of Southeast Asia were little known in the west, except for within a small circle of art experts and museums. In Thailand itself, such possessions were within the realm of only a few wealthy Chinese families and the nobility.


Besides inventing the bright jewel tones and dramatic colour combinations nowadays associated with Thai silk, he is credited with raising thousands of the country’s poorest people out of poverty.


Thompson followed all the traditional religious rituals during construction of the houses and moved in on a day in 1959 decreed auspicious by local astrologers. The house and the art collection soon became such a point of interest, “the talk of the town” that he decided to open his home to the public with proceeds donated to Thai charities and to projects directed at the preservation of Thailand’s cultural heritage.


These days the walled compound is surrounded by high rise buildings, concrete, and air-conditioners, the symbols of modern Asia. The houses were elevated a full story above the ground, a practical Thai precaution to avoid flooding during the rainy season. The roof tiles were fired in Ayutthaya employing a design common centuries ago but rarely used today. The red paint on the outside walls is a preservative often found on many old Thai buildings. The chandeliers were a concession to modern convenience, but even they belong to a past era, having come from 18th and 19th century Bangkok houses.


To enter the main residential house requires the customary removing of shoes and depositing cameras and bags in lockers underneath the house. Entry is then up via the staircase which makes its way up from ground level into a central hallway next to what once was the kitchen, now a display room full of artefacts collected from all over the region. Quite how Jim Thompson came to possess all these items is, much like other aspects of Mr Thompson’s past, a little murky.


Thompson wanted a place to live surrounded by his collection of art objects, artefacts including 400-year-old paintings on cloth made from vegetable dyes so prone to fading. Statues of Burmese and Khmer influence as you would expect from a time and place much influenced by these neighbouring cultures through conquest and trade, a 300-year-old teak Buddha, and figures from Ayutthaya.


In a break from Thai tradition, Thompson turned the carvings in the walls inwards rather than having these facing outwards as Thompson wanted his guests to see them when seated indoors so reversed the positioning.


The guide explains the hand-weaving of silk, a long-neglected cottage industry, captured Thompson’s attention, and he devoted himself to reviving the craft. Gifted as a designer and textile colourist, he contributed substantially to the industry’s growth and to the worldwide recognition accorded to Thai silk. Today the country's overall silk production each year is 600 tonnes, of which 500 tonnes is used locally. There are booming export markets in Japan, Europe and China, and the upcoming ASEAN Asian single market offers an opportunity for Thai silk, as the regional bloc's 10 member countries use silk in many important ceremonies.


The firm achieved a coup in 1951 thanks to Hollywood when designers for the movie the King and I chose Thompson’s fabrics for the stars’ costumes. Thompson’s formula for success was built on having a dependable operation with a high standard of quality and reliability.


Thompson’s determination to keep his company cottage-based was apparently significant for the women who made up the bulk of his work force. By allowing them to work at home, they retained their position in the household while becoming breadwinners. How much of this is still true is unsure. The modern company has relocated its weaving operations to a factory site in eastern city of Korat. The area has a rich artisan history, and Thai weavers were traditionally found in there but selling their product locally as rich Thais usually favoured Chinese silk.


Each year, this area produces more than 9 million metres of silk, generating at least 4 billion baht in revenue, according to the Bangkok Post and holds a Silk Festival in December which includes exhibits from the house of Thompson.


Strict tour conditions apply at the house. No photos are allowed indoors. Visitors are free to roam the grounds while waiting for the guided tours to start but not around inside the house itself. The garage is now a book shop. The operation seems very labour intensive. Tour groups are organised by alphabetical letter and run all day.


Thompson’s life in Bangkok was conspicuous enough. His death, however, remains a mystery. On Easter Sunday 1967, Thompson went for a walk while on holiday in Malaysia and was never heard from again. Despite the biggest manhunt in that country’s history no trace of Thompson was ever found. Various rewards were offered, and further searches conducted, some using military officers and trained anthropologists plus the odd psychic.


He leaves his legacy, the house and museum administered by a family trust. There’s also the Thompson Foundation, established in 1976 and sanctioned by the Kingdom of Thailand. The Foundation is committed to the preservation of Thailand’s rich artistic and cultural heritage and supports a wide variety of research, publication and seminar projects to further this aim.


Thompson’s success story in Thailand has become one of the most popular post-war legends of Asia. For his contribution to the development of the Thai silk industry, Thompson was awarded the Order of the White Elephant, a decoration bestowed upon foreigners for having rendered exceptional service to Thailand. Forget the English meaning of this phrase. In Thailand, these animals, though in fact grey not albino, are of inexpressible worth and must be gifted to the king.


Jim Thompson’s house (and museum) is located on Soi (Street) Kasemsan 2 near the intersection of Rama I Road and Phayathai Road. Instructions for taxis in Thai are available on the internet and the nearest BTS is National Stadium with a shuttle service available.


Beware well-dressed touts in the street near the Thompson house who will tell you it is closed and then try to haul you off on a dodgy buying spree.


Open 9am-5pm admission is 100 baht (US$3.30).

Comments  

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