The Genteel
March 9, 2021


Jim Thompson House. Photograph by Diana Bocco
Jim Thompson Bangkok
Jim Thompson in the living room
of his Bangkok house, circa 1967. 

Nestled in the middle of Bangkok's concrete jungle, the Jim Thompson house is nothing short of astounding. Tucked away behind looming skyscrapers and wild cement monsters, whilst situated near the Mahanak canal across from Ban Krua, lies a lush paradise of teakwood, palms and ponds. This charming Thai house was once the "talk of the town" and "the city's most celebrated social center," the museum's official website claims. It's not hard to see why.

The Jim Thompson house has become famous across the globe thanks to the man who built it. An American architect by training and a former agent for the Office of Strategic Services (later renamed as the Central Intelligence Agency), Thompson was first scheduled to enter Thailand by parachute in September 1945 to establish a resistance against the invading Japanese army. However, the end of the war meant Thompson instead went straight to Bangkok. With few other Americans in Thailand at the time, he went on to become a military attaché for the U.S. Minister to Thailand.

Jim Thompson House ming vases
Chinese blue-and-white Ming porcelain
vases in the Jim Thompson House.
Photograph by Diana Bocco.

After leaving the army in 1946, Thomson became fascinated by Thailand and the surrounding Asian art. He began indulging in both passions by researching the hand-woven silk industry. During this period, the Thai silk industry was slowly dying. In Thailand, silk had always been a cottage industry, manufactured by part-time weavers working out of their homes. However, the growing industrialisation of the 1940s meant cheaper, machine-made silks were beginning to put hand weavers out of business.

By 1947, just one year after he became interested in silk, Thompson had convinced a number of weavers from the village of Ban Krua to make some samples, which he then showed to Vogue's then editor, Edna Woolman Chase, who immediately fell in love with the unique designs. She asked New York designer Valentina to make a dress using Thai silk so she could feature it in the magazine, and it became a huge success. Thompson returned to Thailand a changed man. By 1948, he had established his own Thai Silk Company. 

Thompson, who had been enraptured by Bangkok from the time he arrived, spent the next twenty years rebuilding the silk industry and in the process became known by many as the "Thai Silk King." He generated jobs for hundreds of impoverished families and helped many villagers invest in items that had once been considered unaffordable. Within just a few years, his silks were gracing the catwalks of New York and Paris. By 1956, they made their big screen debut and were used to dress the actors of the award-winning movie, The King and I (1956).

Thompson loved the Ban Krua area so much that he decided to erect his permanent house across from the weaving village that had helped build his industry. The complex house was constructed from six separate teak houses, many of which were two centuries old, that Thompson had brought from various parts of Thailand. After being carefully dismantled, the traditional Thai houses were assembled by carpenters in Bangkok, using long-established building techniques.

Despite a massive search-and-rescue operation involving hundreds of men, [Thompson] never turned up, neither dead nor alive. His vanishing is considered one of Thailand's greatest mysteries and it has led to a number of theories, from abduction to a self-planned disappearance.

Traditional Thai houses are built without using nails, so they can be easily dismantled and moved on barges down the river when their owners relocated. Most of Thompson's houses came from Ayutthaya, the old capital city of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in northern Thailand. When setting the houses back up on his property, Thompson made sure all of them were rebuilt with one-story left underneath, as part of an old tradition that protects buildings from flooding during monsoon seasons, as well as offers much-needed security against snakes.

The house sits on one "rai" (a Thai measurement that roughly equals half an acre) of land that was designed to look like a tropical jungle. The main house is easily visible as soon as you step into the compound, but the smaller buildings are hidden within the lush greenery and peek coyly from behind flowering banana trees or unexpected water features.

Thompson did more for Thailand than just save its silk industry. He was an avid collector of Southeast Asian art and travelled extensively throughout Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand to salvage Benjarong earthenware, Cambodian carvings, Burmese wooden statues and Thai porcelain from the 14th and 15th century Sukhothai and Sawankalok periods. His house is a testimony to his exquisite architectural style as well; the chandelier hanging in the drawing room once hung in a former palace and the dinner table is actually two antique Chinese mahjong tables pushed together.

Thompson's collection also includes an impressive number of Chinese blue-and-white Ming porcelain, which has gone on to provide inspiration for several of his silk prints. He was particularly fond of Buddhist art, amassing what is today the country's largest collection of 17th century Thai religious paintings. Without his intervention, much of the art probably would have been smuggled across the borders or sold abroad to private collectors.

Thompson's reign as the king of silk ended as unexpectedly as it had begun. In March 1967, when vacationing in the Cameron Highlands in neighbouring Malaysia, Thompson went out for a jungle walk and never came back. Despite a massive search-and-rescue operation involving hundreds of men, he never turned up, neither dead nor alive. His vanishing is considered one of Thailand's greatest mysteries and it has led to a number of theories, from abduction to a self-planned disappearance.

Jim Thompson House
The Jim Thompson House.

Today, the house is a testament to an era of mystery that is long gone. "Emerging from World War II as the dominant international power, America turned to expatriates like Thompson to make sense of the strange lands it was suddenly encountering," reported Newsweek. Visitors to the house can now see Thompson's eclectic art collection, as well as a number of changing exhibits at the Jim Thompson Art Centre.

The current collective exhibition - aptly named "Art on Farm: A Diary from the Isan Plateau," and open until the end of June 2012, is perhaps one of the best suited to remember Thompson's legacy. Featuring art inspired by eco-agriculture, the raising of silk worms and the myths and legends of the Thai countryside, the exhibit is a homage to "the way of life, customs and the past history of the people" that Thompson loved so much.



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