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Jim Thompson’s House
The Cultural Legacy of Thailand’s Silk King
From a patch of lush vegetation, the sumptuous red teak buildings rise elegantly up, reaching for the sky, challenging the visitor to resist enchantment. One can't help but succumb to the engaging first impressions and the desire to explore. As one removes shoes and steps into the black-and-white marble tiled entrance hall, yet more gleaming teak rising above, first impressions give way to a sense of quiet, delighted awe. A hundred metres from Bangkok's busy Rama I Road, in the house of a vanished American silk magnate, tranquillity reigns in welcome contrast to the neighbouring bustle, and seemingly in spite of the unsolved mystery surrounding the fate of the former owner.
This is Jim Thompson's house, a Bangkok landmark since its opening in 1959. For eight years the house was an important fixture on the city's social circuit. Thompson's gregariousness and untiring civility as a host to both locals and foreigners approached the legendary. Since Thompson disappeared on holiday in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands in 1967, his house has become a feature on Bangkok's tourist circuit. Gregariousness may have been replaced by quietude and an entranced respect, but Thompson still holds the house in his grip. When the guides speak of “Mr. Thompson”, one cannot help feeling that he'll be home any minute.
And that is much of the attraction of this most thoroughly engaging of Bangkok's museums: it may well be an institution, but it doesn't feel institutionalised. Far from being stuffy, the house remains a home, albeit an unconventional one. A wander through its rooms is touched with a slight sense of voyeurism, which is almost as compelling as the art treasures on display. This is an unconventional place.
Linger in that entrance hall a little longer. It is a fitting emblem for the house and the verdant enclosure which surrounds it. The cool monochromatic marble floor contrasts pleasingly with the warm glow of the teak walls. For a moment it is tempting to think that the contrast is simply between the occidental and the oriental, or contemporary and traditional. But such simple oppositions don't hold for very long. The marble flooring may be Italian, but it was taken from a nineteenth-century Bangkok palace. It is just as much a part of the country's heritage as the mosaic decoration of Wat Phra Kaew, the royal temple just down the road. What is more, Thompson's choice of teak for the building material was not so much traditional as archaic in fifties Bangkok, when concrete was de rigeur. This house is at once traditionally Thai, and challengingly different. It is atypical, individual, a complex place – the very mirror, indeed, of the man who designed and built it.
It was in Bangkok that Thompson found fame. His resuscitation of the all-but-dead Thai silk industry is a story of improbable success, marketing genius, and far from standard business practices. It is also a story of passionate determination, chance, even fate. Thompson was heading for Thailand just as World War II approached its close, but not as a business man. He had been training for some months, on a desert island and in the jungles of Sri Lanka, to prepare for parachuting into the north-eastern region of the country on a mission with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to liberate the people from their Japanese invaders. It was whilst flying to Thailand that the Japanese announced their surrender. Thompson and his compatriots were grounded in Burma for a few days, before being flown on to Bangkok, no longer incognito, but now as victors in full view of the defeated Japanese.
That was 1945. Thompson stayed on in Bangkok as OSS station chief, and helped set up a temporary American consulate. He was very active in the city's post-war social life, and by all accounts was almost immediately enchanted by the culture. He became involved in a project to renovate the dilapidated Oriental Hotel. When he went back to America to receive his discharge, he was on the lookout for investors in the Oriental project. He returned to Thailand in 1947. His wife had divorced him in America, and any reservations he previously had about shifting his life to the Far East were gone.
In one of those strange twists of fate, the Oriental Hotel venture ended, as far as Thompson's role in it was concerned, in disaster. Fortunately, by this time, Thompson was too involved in his adopted country, too fond of its people and culture, to leave, even though his disappointment was by all accounts great. But he did need something new to occupy himself.
Thompson was a compulsive collector. He was not a specialist, but rather someone whose collecting was based on fancy. Bangkok was an ideal place for such a character, with its huge markets, and the myriad curio shops of its Chinese district. From his first arrival in the city, Thompson had been disposed to spend what free time he could rooting through these shops and markets. Two things in particular had attracted him very early on. One was the particularly elaborate classical Thai painting, the other was Thai silk. The silk came mainly in the form of traditional garments, no longer fashionable, and only really worn at ceremonies and the like. Thompson admired the texture of this material, what he called its ‘humps and bumps', and collected what samples he could find.
It was after a casual suggestion by the American Embassy Commercial Attaché that something could possibly done with the silk business in Thailand, that Thompson started to look more carefully at his favourite material. He had seen some of the sources of the material on his trips to the north-east of the country, and he had also found one of the few remaining communities of weavers in Bangkok. They were a group held together predominantly by their religion and ethnic background – the Cham Muslims of Ban Krua. Thompson set to work learning as much as he could about silk production, weaving, and dying techniques. He encouraged the Ban Krua community to continue their weaving, and guided them to more innovative designs, and more versatile lengths. He pushed the material in America, and got his first big break when a dress made from the material by the designer Valentina appeared in Vogue. By 1949, when Thai silk appeared on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein's stunningly successful musical The King and I, it was clear that Thai silk was an overwhelming international success.
Whilst building up his business, Thompson hadn't stopped spending his spare time in Bangkok's antique shops, and he was amassing quite a collection of art and antiques. His initial interest in Thai painting had expanded into sculpture and porcelain. In fact, his collection grew to include examples of art from all over Southeast Asia. Although he read up on most of the pieces he acquired, and certainly became very knowledgeable about the arts of the area, his collection remained to the end as it started out, uniquely personal, the record of an individual's taste.
As Thompson's business, art collection and renown grew, so too did his guest list. It seemed that everyone passing through Southeast Asia dropped into Bangkok to visit him and sample his silk. As the fifties drew on, Thompson needed a new place to display his art and to entertain his guests. He decided to build a house on some land which had become available opposite the Ban Krua weaving community.
Thompson made frequent forays into the country, both on business and in search of pieces to add to his collection. On these journeys, he often came across and admired many old teak houses, by that time fairly rare in rapidly modernising Bangkok. He therefore set upon the idea of buying some of these old teak houses and combining them into one dwelling. Thai houses were traditionally built with portability in mind, and could easily be taken apart and reassembled after transport. The house that he built consists of parts of six separate buildings. The main section, the drawing room, is a nineteenth century house moved from Ban Krua on the other side of the canal. The kitchen, an annexe to the east of the main section of the building also came from Ban Krua. The other four houses originated, as did the craftsmen who knew how to put them together, in Ayutthaya, the former capital to the north of Bangkok.
This was very much Thompson's project. He was involved throughout the design and building of the house, choreographing the execution, making sure that this building worked. Perhaps in some ways it was the final victorious chapter in the failed Oriental Hotel episode. Thompson gave it his all – and he had a lot to give considering his pre-war background. Before he first headed East, Thompson had practised as an architect in New York for nine years, and for a few more years been director of the Monte Carlo Ballet Company, where his real interest, he was frequently to recall, lay in the sets, the costumes, and the theatrical effects. It seems that much of the experience he gained in these American years fed quite directly into the house he now built in Bangkok.
Thompson was keen that his house be authentically Thai, even going so far as to observe all the appropriate Buddhist and animistic rituals during its construction. He did however make a couple of departures from tradition. The stairs, which by tradition go on the outside of a Thai house, he moved into a stairwell. He reversed the walls in the drawing room, so that the ornate carving below the windows could be seen from the inside – interestingly this renders the shutters on the windows rather awkward to close. And he installed Western bathrooms and toilets, probably his greatest concession to comfortable living.
Some, motivated one guesses more by jealousy than concern, have claimed that one could never be comfortable in the house. But that misses the point. The house Jim Thompson built is a theatrical event, brilliantly executed. It is an exercise in surprise, delight, and not a little humour. Everywhere there is a new alcove to examine, a glimpse of a statue silhouetted in a distant window, or a charming oddity amongst the religious iconography. Who can possibly forget the delightful mouse-house, a glass fronted multi-tiered rodent cage, similar to a television in appearance and effect. Likewise, few can resist a wry smile as the head lifts off a porcelain cat to reveal, of all things, a chamber pot.
From the small yet impressive entrance hall, the visitor is led upwards to the second level by the long Thai paintings hanging above the stairs. These large canvases are complemented at the top of the stairs by an impressive gallery of mainly nineteenth-century Thai religious paintings, including a complete set representing the popular Thai Jataka story of Prince Vessantara who gave away all his possessions, including wife and children, to achieve perfection.
Off this upper entrance hall is the dining room, containing a set of blue-and-white Ming Dynasty porcelains, some of which are displayed on the ornate dining table, formerly a gaming table, and bearing King Chulalongkorn's insignia. More of the porcelain can be seen in the cupboards and cabinets around the sides of the room. Crossing over the corridor, there is a whole room devoted to an impressive collection of Bencharong porcelain. This visually striking five-coloured porcelain was made in China between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries after the designs of Thai artists. Whilst passing from room to room, one might notice – or fail to notice with painful consequence – the raised boards separating the rooms. These lend strength to the structure of the house. They also keep spirits out, according to legend.
At the centre of the house is the drawing room. Here Thompson gave his theatricality its fullest reign. The whole room, entirely open on the canal side, resembles a stage. Those who spent evenings with Thompson – and he entertained almost nightly – recall how the weavers often used to stand on the opposite side of the canal, watching events unfold in the brightly-lit drawing room rather as one might watch a stage-play. In the centre of the room is a traditional Thai bed, and all around in alcoves and on antique cabinets are various Buddha images and religious icons. The soft furnishings, needless to say are of silk, and all demonstrate Thompson's innate brilliance with colour – reds, yellows, browns, blues, all combining with wonderful effectiveness. Down some steps, between the drawing room and the canal is a terrace of seventeenth-century bricks from Ayutthaya, where a classical Thai orchestra played on the night of the housewarming party in 1959.
At the far end of the drawing room separating this part of the house from Thompson's private quarters is the only non-Thai part of the whole structure. Here one finds a delicately carved wall and doors inlaid with mother-of pearl, formerly the entrance to a Chinese pawn shop. It is a master stroke, so effective, yet, strictly considered, out of place. It highlights the most delightful aspect of Thompson's house and art collection – and, one might add, his silk designs. This was a man who really wasn't concerned about purity. For all Thompson was eager that the Thai and Asian arts he so loved be preserved, his guiding ethos always remained his own delectable taste and his personal disposition.
One interesting result of Thompson's great emotional involvement with his collection is that the majority of the religious statuary now on display is not Thai at all. Rather most of it is Burmese or Khmer in origin. In the latter part of 1962, Thompson had a rather serious falling out with the Thai Fine Arts Department over the matter of five Buddha heads which they were claiming had been stolen from a cave. Just how much his collection meant to Thompson can be seen in that following this trouble he decided to get rid of his entire collection of Thai Buddhist art. Actually, in the end, his resolve weakened, and he wasn't able to part with all the pieces. But even so, a sizeable part of the Thai collection was sold back to dealers.
Yet, the effect of Thompson's possibly over-heated reaction is not at all detrimental to the remaining collection and the beautiful building which houses it. In fact, it is this human dimension in Jim Thompson's house which makes the place so appealing, even endearing. There is still a great unsolved mystery surrounding his disappearance thirty five years ago in 1967, but a wander through Thompson's house gives one the chance to get to know this remarkable character to some small degree. And to know him not as an enigma, not even as a tremendously successful business man, but as a man who loved what he did and who pursued his every interest with an admirable passion.
Text by Simon Robson; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media