by Denise Heywood
In bustling modern Bangkok, down an alley off a crowded street, is a tranquil corner of old Siam: The Jim Thompson Museum. To visit it is to enter a magical world.
Set in a fragrant tropical garden, this historic teak wood house is filled with antique Thai furniture, sculptures, bronzes, wood carvings, porcelain, ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, manuscripts, votive plaques and sacred Buddhist and Hindu objects, displayed within an atmospheric décor of shimmering silk.
This recreation of Siam’s rich artistic heritage was the vision of one man, an American, Jim Thompson, who came here during the second world war as an army officer, fell in love with it and stayed. He was inspired to resuscitate ancient silk weaving traditions that were disappearing, rescued hundreds of weavers from poverty, provided silk for films such as The King and I and created an exquisite home made from six original old teak houses where he became a legendary host. But his dream would not last. Fifty years ago this year, in 1967, at the height of his success and fame, Thompson went for a walk in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia while staying with friends and disappeared. Without any clues or evidence of what happened, his demise has remained steeped in mystery. But his life was one of brilliance, creativity and imagination, a celebration of the arts of Thailand.
From the moment that James Harrison Wilson Thompson, who was born in Greenville, Delaware, in 1906 to a prosperous family, arrived in Thailand in 1944 he felt an affinity with it. Parachuted in during World War II as an army officer who had started the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Princeton graduate was sent to help liberate the Northeast. When the war ended – Siam was renamed Thailand only in 1949 – he went to Bangkok and worked for the American Legation. Then, with a group of affluent friends, some of whom were members of royalty, he embarked on a project to restore the dilapidated 19th-century Oriental Hotel, today one of the finest hotels in the world. But after a disagreement, he withdrew.
Instead, Thompson, an aesthete and inveterate art collector, sought out the old markets where he discovered glorious hand-woven silk which he found he could sell. Realising that the skills these represented were vanishing in the aftermath of war, superceded by an influx of machine made silk from China, he began studying silk in the National Museum and finding old weavers in the Bangkrua district of the city to commission pieces from them. He co-founded The Thai Silk Company in 1948, giving his weavers shares in the company. It went rapidly from strength to strength as he recreated intricate patterns and radiant colours, for which he had an innate taste and sensibility, favouring the rich magenta, purple, crimson, rose and cerise pink beloved of Thais, by using special artifical dyes that would last. Creating such a luxurious product in the beleaguered post war years, he soon found a market in America through his contact with the editor at Vogue magazine, Edna Woolman Chase, who enthusiastically featured it in the next issue.
Shortly afterwards his silks were chosen for the 1956 film of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I by its designer, Irene Sharaff, to adorn the handsome star Yul Brynner as King Mongkut and his captivating 80 children and their English governess Anna in the 1860s. In an age of predominantly American western films with rugged cowboys decked out in denim jeans and leather boots, Brynner’s appearance in silk and sequins, an earring dangling from one lobe, outshone all his rivals for dashing masculinity. The questionable portrayal of the monarch, much criticised since, did nothing to diminish the success of the film. Thompson was launched. The film’s glittering costumes in dazzling colours brought him wealth and fame. Visitors came from all over the world to his silk shop in Surawong Road and to meet an adventurous American in Southeast Asia whose hospitality became as renowned as his wares. From this success emerged the realisation of his dream of a traditional Thai house filled with the objects that he had already started voraciously collecting.
He gradually acquired six old houses, ruen Thai derm, several from Ayutthaya and the central region, and reassembled them on land acquired alongside a klong, the Saen Saeb canal, close to the Bangkrua weavers. As William Warren writes in Jim Thompson: The House on the Klong, his decision to ‘erect a traditional Thai house and live in it was a novel decision in the 1950s’. Wealthier people, he adds, would have used it as a ‘quaint touch of nostalgia’ for entertaining but lived in a Western building. Yet, architecturally the vernacular Thai house in wood and bamboo is ideal for the tropics, on stilts to protect it from flooding in the rainy season, with open verandas for cool breezes and gabled, steeply pitched roofs for shade, the materials lending themselves to a rural way of life integrated harmoniously with the environment. These structures in teak, a strong wood resistant to termites and the elements and easy to carve, are elegant and graceful and prized today throughout Southeast Asia where they have become scarce. Placed auspiciously, facing east or west, blessed by Theravada Buddhist monks before habitation, they would have a spirit house at the entrance for the Phra Phum, guardian spirit of the place, an ornate hamyon carved above the door to protect occupants from malevolent spirits, and a spirit altar in the main room decorated with offerings of flowers, incense and candles. As Professor Ruethai Chaichongrak points out in The Thai House, History and Evolution, houses such as these were an integral part of a community and a social structure centred on Theravada Buddhism, ‘embodying ancient beliefs and a way of life that has almost vanished’. Thompson’s house, whose construction had been blessed by monks in an inaugural ceremony on 15 September 1958 and officially opened with ceremonies on 3 April 1959, was deemed ready for occupation.
Thompson’s home, where he entertained nightly, enchanted visitors. To be seated at a 100-year-old carved teak dining table that once belonged to King Chulalongkorn (as a gaming table rather than for dining since they would have been seated on the floor for meals) and to gaze up at a 19th-century crystal chandelier from a former palace, was to immerse oneself in an exotic and romantic evocation of a bygone era.
Although true to architectural traditions, many windows, originally on the outside of an old house, were ingeniously turned outside-in to become niches displaying objects such as 19th-century Burmese wood carved nats, spirit images, in the main living room, or a standing Buddha image in the study, its iconography typical of that found in Lopburi province from the Dvaravati school dating back to the 8th century of early Northern Thailand. This contemplative limestone sculpture, the wide face with downcast eyes, the hair tightly curled to frame the forehead, radiates serenity. Even though hands and legs are missing, the torso, clothed in a simply incised robe of an ascetic monk, the uttarasanga, one shoulder uncovered, is one of quiet strength and control.
The other important Buddha image in the house is a sandstone Buddha, also from the Lopburi school, dating from the 13th century. This 80 cm tall statue is of the Buddha seated cross-legged in meditation, on a naga, right foot over the left, the hands folded in dhyana mudra, a mudra, or pang in Thai, being one of the main gestures of the Theravada Buddhist canon. With downcast eyes and subtle, gentle smile, the image is one of transcendent peace and is placed in a special alcove framed by an archway. Clearly Thompson felt a profound affinity with these sacred sculptures, displaying them not just as objets d’art but honouring their context by positioning them as they would be in a temple on a raised dais. It is flanked on either side, in niches, by small 12th-century limestone figures of Shiva and Uma in a style influenced by Khmer statuary.
Among other significant bronze Buddhas is a small, fine, regally adorned one, from the 13/14th century, seated in bhumisparca mudra, calling the earth to witness, the diadem and pendants influenced by the Pala-Sena art of Bengal, India. Wood-carved images from the 19th century – earlier wood images perished in the humid climate – include an angel with hands joined in the traditional wai, and several temple doors, of the Bangkok-school style, with guardian deities carved within the rectangular space.
Thompson admired Chinese blue and white porcelain, especially from the Yuan period (1271-1368), today of soaring value, and acquired many other plates, bowls and vases from as early as the 17th century, on display throughout the house. His collection of Bencharong, Thai-style porcelain made in China, its name referring to the multi-coloured aspect of pieces decorated in green, yellow, blue, black, orange, turquoise and gold on a black or dark blue background, constitutes one of the finest private collections in existence.
Along with porcelain and ceramics, innumerable paintings on cotton from the Vessantara Jataka decorate the walls. This penultimate story of the Jataka tales, which originated in Sanskrit from India, relating the 550 previous lives of the Buddha, Prince Siddharta Gautama, is illustrated in one that shows Prince Vessantara and his children in a delicate chariot, drawn by a mythical unicorn, riding into exile. Some paintings are on vertical cloth banners (phrabot in Thai). Another shows the story of Jujak the hermit and his wife, to whom the Prince gave his children. Other paintings on wood, from the 20th-century Bangkok School, show the Buddha and bodhisattvas. Thompson’s collection of paintings are displayed throughout the museum and represent several eras of Thai paintings and murals. His collection includes literary texts, in cabinets, relating the Hindu epic the Ramayana, Ramakien in Thai, its innumerable episodes captured with delicate grace by Thai artists, and other legends and tales, many dating from the 18th century. The figures, exquisitely painted, radiate the same calm and dignity as Buddha images. As with all Thai art, which is sacred, none of these is signed, being the expression by artisans of their religious and philosophical beliefs, made as offerings to temples, rather than as any conscious creation of a ‘work of art’.
Textiles are everywhere and Thompson’s silks cover every bed, chair, stool and sofa. These lustrous fabrics were what drew the visitors of the time who ranged from celebrities to royalty. They included Somerset Maugham, Gore Vidal, Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote, Senator Robert Kennedy, Edward and Ethel Kennedy, Edward Luce, founder of Time, actress Anne Baxter, Barbara Hutton, the Woolworths heiress, Doris Duke, the ‘richest girl in the world’, whose collection of Asian artefacts is in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, and the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, and Queen Sirikit herself who bought his silks for her clothes designed by couturier Pierre Balmain. But Thompson also invited students and teachers from the University of Fine Arts to view his collection, graciously providing refreshments. The living room where his dinner parties had become legendary, often accompanied by classical dancers, a Thai orchestra, and an assortment of animals such as Cocky his cockatoo, bantams and domestic pets, was like a theatrical stage as the doors opened completely on to the garden filled with the perfume of tropical blooms such as jasmin, frangipani, flame of the forest and numerous palm trees, arranged by Thompson.
By 1967, 50 years ago, Thompson had lived eight years in his house. At the pinnacle of his success, with silk now established as the country’s most celebrated product and living art, recipient of the highest awards in recognition of his work from the government, he decided to spend Easter with friends, the Lings, in their house, Moonlight Cottage, in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. Accompanied by Connie Mangksau, a fellow aesthete, art collector and dealer, they left on 23 March and spent Good Friday and Easter Saturday together. On Sunday 26 March at about 3pm, Thompson, aged 61 years old, went out for a walk. But he never returned. Searches of every description over the following weeks and months yielded nothing. Conspiracy theories regarding his work for the CIA flourished, with allusions to kidnap and abduction. Rumours circulated of Thai rivals jealous of a foreigner’s success with a great private collection of Thai art. His biographer Joshua Kurlantzick, in The Ideal Man, The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War, believes he attracted hostility during a troubled time of war in Southeast Asia. The mystery attracted worldwide attention. But nothing has ever been proved. After seven years he was declared dead.
In 1976, permission was obtained from the Thai government by the court-appointed administrators for Thompson’s property for it to become a foundation bearing his name. The property was vested in the foundation and the house and collection were officially registered as a national museum.
His legacy is thus accessible to all art lovers and tourists who have only to turn down an alley off a busy main road in Bangkok to find a corner of Old Siam and enter a magical world.
Jim Thompson Museum: Rama I Road, Khwaeng Wang Mai, Khet Pathum Wan, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10330, jimthompsonhouse.com.
Jim Thompson Silk Shop: 9 Thanon Surawong, Khwaeng Suriya Wong, Khet Bang Rak, Bangkok