Silk Thread: The Strange Mystery of Jim Thompson


Arts & Culture

In the study of the Jim Thompson House & Museum in Bangkok, just above Thompson’s old desk, are two separate horoscopes, foretold and framed, hanging on the wall. One of them predicts good luck in 1959, the year Thompson chose to move into this house, retired from the U.S. Army and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), having already relocated to Bangkok and gotten rich revitalizing the Thai silk industry. The other horoscope included in the frame predicts bad luck at the age of 61 for he who was born in the Year of the Horse. Thompson had been born in the Year of the Horse, and in 1967, at the age of 61, he went for a walk in the woods of Malaysia just south of here and never came back. Not even his remains have ever been found.

Thompson’s house is now a museum, although during his lifetime this city would never have accommodated such a thing. He perfected a popular silk that was better than other silks—a silk cut from lengthier cloths and colored by stronger and faster-acting and better-varied dyes. When it was chosen for all the silks used in the movie version of The King and I (1956), it became more popular still. At the time, Thailand had given up on its own silk industry, importing a cheaper fabric from other countries. The localized empire Thompson established would improve the lives of Bangkok’s citizenry, handsomely employing them in a business benevolently run. Still, his enemies were legion, and they extended all the way up into society’s highest strata. The mystery of just why and how Thompson disappeared, and by the agency of whom, is one that persists still and probably always will.

His former home is actually six separate buildings, spaced by polished-ceramic walkways and dense jungle foliage, sitting atop the Saen Saeb Canal. The houses were built from disassembled teakwood homes, all of them more than a century old, that had been slow-boated down the river from Ayutthaya—seat of the old, ruined empire—whereupon Thompson, who had studied architecture at Princeton and then worked as an architect in the U.S. for almost a decade, reassembled them in the traditional Thai manner. He elevated the homes on stilts to protect them from the relentlessly rainy monsoon seasons, and turned the walls so that they faced outward, then painted them red. Nobody was doing traditional teakwood Thai houses anymore by the time Thompson put these together, but when his home became a social center and showcase for Asia’s artistic history, Thais all up and down the country began imitating Thompson’s revival of their own heritage. It was as if silk was merely the first of the mediums through which Thompson could help give Thai culture back to itself.

The house contains some of the richest artifacts from the annals of Thai history, but this ardent reverence for his adopted culture made Thompson as many enemies as friends. By filling his house with teakwood statues and Chinese porcelain; paintings and carvings; lamps made from drums turned upside-down; large scrolls and individual frames telling the story of the Buddha’s journey; precious sculptures and Buddha-heads—by filling his house with all of these treasures, he invoked the hostility of his host-country. As an outsider, he had amassed what may have been the single finest collection, anywhere, of Southeast-Asian art and antiques.

Most of it was discovered in old junk shops, or in the far-out reaches of nature—in forests and caves—where it had been abandoned and left to the mercy of time or fate. Thompson rescued it, bringing it into his home in Bangkok with the intention, all along, of leaving it to the Thais upon his death. And yet, “to many Thais, including perhaps influential people like senior generals and their spouses,” writes his biographer Joshua Kurlantzick, “Thompson appeared to have used his Thai art collection, like his silk business [or his home, one could add], to make it seem like he knew more about Thailand than Thai people themselves. Some Thais simply resented Thompson’s success.”

But high society still came to Thompson’s home, to see the treasures and attend the dinner parties he held here. By the end of his life, Thompson had begun to feel at least as burdened by the parties as fulfilled, but still he kept on with them. His home and its design and the collection contained therein remained a source of genuine pride for Thompson, long after his relationship with many Thais began to suffer terribly.

When you take the tour, you see that his pride was justified; his home was an unofficial museum long before it became an official one. On the first-floor landing, there are Italian-marble floors with black and white tiles (the white tiles, superstition held, were cool; the black, warm). There are teakwood statues and, in large cloth scrolls that run up the staircase, there is the narrative of the Buddha’s journey, told in pictures. In addition to the teakwood statues and precious porcelain from China, the Belgian glass and Victorian chandeliers, the Cambodian carvings and the Benjarong earthenware, the house is rich in purely functional features, too, like the high-step room-separators designed to protect from insects, or the printing-block and weaving-loom that sit on ground-level. When guests would visit in Thompson’s lifetime, they could see and hear the shuttle-clack of the loom as it manufactured his precious product, legendary even in its own day, and Thompson seems not to have cared whether this display demystified the product. The product was its own entity, beautiful and functional, and so was his home. Both could convey mystique even in the act of their revelation.

Some of the design choices are delightfully purposeless in their eccentricity, for it was important to Thompson that the house carry his idiosyncratic stamp. The central staircase is indoors rather than out-, contrary to Thai custom (although this custom would soon change, due in part to Thompson’s example). In the living-room—itself oddly positioned amidst a large passageway connecting two of the houses—the windows have no shutters. There are doors in the master bedroom that come from old temples, where they were believed to ward off evil spirits. There is an elaborate, maze-like mouse-house behind glass. Another room features a door taken from a pawnbroker’s shop. The table in the dining-room is, inexplicably, two repurposed Mahjong tables, joined as one.

Outside the main building, tucked away safe inside the circuitry of the estate grounds, is a spirit house, a colorful and miniaturized replication of the larger structures, and serving, according to Thai custom, to house and appease those spirits disturbed in the construction of a new building on old grounds. It was to this spirit house that the superstitious among the concerned came, upon Thompson’s disappearance, to make their prayers and lay their offerings. The police were superstitious too, recording the findings of some 110 spirit-mediums who, they believed, just may have summoned some answers on Thompson’s whereabouts.

But the mediums brought no conclusive answers. Neither did anyone else. The possibilities were abundant, the certainties non-existent. Maybe on his hike he succumbed to starvation or adverse conditions, or was attacked by wild animals and killed. Maybe the government had him murdered. Maybe an enemy of the CIA did, or, just as likely, a friend of the CIA. Maybe he was the victim of a ransom-kidnapping gone wrong, dying for want of his gallstone medication. Maybe he disappeared on purpose, with the intention of remaking his image and his life.

Each of these theories has been cogently dismissed as implausible by informed observers, including Kurlantzik, who favors a different theory. He believes that local business rivals alone had all the right means and motive, as competitors who stood to benefit from his absence, and who could easily have bribed the local police to not investigate the case too heavily. This was very easily accomplished in the 1960s; in fact, it had happened just two years earlier, when an English-newspaper editor named Darrel Berrigan was murdered. Since Thompson was popular with neither the Thai government nor the American government, which had long ago tired of his aggressive criticisms of the Vietnam war, it’s perfectly understandable why potential murderers would have felt they could pull off the job without attracting supreme scrutiny from government agencies (even though the agencies themselves, contrary to the conspiracy-theorists, would not have risked such scrutiny on themselves for such small gains).

There were signs hanging in the forests of the Cameron Highlands, where Thompson went missing, warning hikers to never travel alone. Thompson was an experienced hiker and trekker of Southeast Asia, and an ex-Army soldier with extensive field-training. That he would starve or become irretrievably lost because of a day-hike gone wrong is ridiculous. Just as ridiculous is the idea that he would have been mauled by animals without his remains being found. Remains are always found, except when there are none. Thompson knew all the signs. He could read what they said and he knew what they meant, all kinds of signs, every single one of them. And he’d always known—and determined for himself—which ones he was going to follow.

Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large. He’s written for Library of America’s Reader’s Almanac, the L.A. Review of Books, The MillionsThe Rumpus, and others.  He last wrote for the Daily about Jack Richardson’s Memoir of a Gambler