Friday, 20 November 2009

Jim Thompson House Bangkok. Weaving a mystery.


Hollywood would struggle to dream up a more evocative script: CIA intrigue, the exotic east, political skullduggery, A-list dinner guests, millions made, and then … a sudden disappearance. ‘Absolute mysteries only improve with age,’ says William Warren, author of Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery. ‘And there can have been few as absolute as Thompson’s has proved to be.’ With around 40,000 visitors a year, Thompson’s house is increasingly a part of Bangkok’s fabric.

Thompson arrived in Thailand as a military intelligence officer with the OSS (fore-runner of the CIA) at the close of the Second World War. Hand-weaving of silk in rich exotic colours fired his imagination, so after discharge he set about reviving Thailand’s fading cottage industry. His skill as a designer and colourist was soon noted by fashion editors at Vogue etc and, when the casts of Ben Hur and The King and I musical disported Thompson’s creations, his silk empire was off and spinning.

In 1959, the great host’s Thai teak house became an instant Bangkok landmark: a letter addressed, simply, to ‘Jim Thompson, Bangkok’ found its way to him. Barbara Hutton, Senator William Fulbright, Truman Capote were among his star-spangled guests. Somerset Maugham’s thank you note read: ‘You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste’.

But he didn’t have long to enjoy the dream he’d woven. On March 26 1967 he was visiting Singaporean friends, the Lings, at Moonlight Cottage in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Following a picnic on Mount Brinchang, they went back to enjoy a siesta, and … he simply vanished into, well, thin air.

Theories abounded, many centred on his CIA connections and friendship with former Thai PM Pridi, who was exiled in China. There was also the Fine Arts Department who accused him of systematically looting up-country temples. This cut deeply as he saw himself as a guardian of these art forms and antiquities. He wrote the Siam Society – which stood to inherit his house, land, company shares, and collections – out of his will.

Others believed he was mistakenly shot by an errant orang asli (indigenous tribe) blow-dart, and hastily buried. Then, within six months, his elderly sister was murdered in America.

Investigators publicly favoured the communist kidnapping plot, with terrorists active throughout the 450 square kilometres of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, until their surrender in 1989. There were supposed sightings of Thompson in Canton, Laos, even Tahiti, but in 1974 Thompson was officially declared dead in USA and Thailand.

I pick up Thompson’s trail in a half-acre oasis of golden bamboo, ficus trees and flowering bananas tucked away down an otherwise non-descript Bangkok soi (street). Here, an impossibly elegant guide, dressed in one of Thompson’s creations of crimson and gold silk, greets me with a reverent wai gesture.

You see, opposite Thompson’s weaving village in Ban Krua was land he’d always fancied; formerly part of a summer palace compound that bordered the klong (canal). He chose to build a house here, now a draw card in a kingdom with a royal flush of attractions. For this was no ordinary house by anyone’s standards. Six traditional Thai teak houses, some centuries old, were seamlessly coupled – it was their craftsmanship and permanence that captivated Thompson. The houses were dismantled, stacked on barges and brought by river from the ancient capital, Ayudhya, to the construction site. Early in the spring of 1959, on a day deemed auspicious by a Buddhist geomancer, Thompson officially moved into his new home.

Such was Thompson’s fastidious dedication to detail, the finest carpenters were summoned from Ayudhya (Ayyuthaya) to reassemble the structures. Thai architectural idiosyncrasies include openings that taper at the top, venting more of the stifling tropical torpor. The house is elevated a full storey above the ground on stilts, a practical precaution born of legendary monsoon storms. The illusion of height and grace is also served by the walls leaning slightly inward.

The high ceilings slope ‘cathedral’ style, maximising light and air. Shutters are thrown open to welcome cool breezes. Each doorway is crossed by a 15-inch plank step that typically serves two purposes: one, to stop babies crawling out into the canal; the other, to stop ghosts said to travel only along the floor.

Thompson stamped his eclectic imprimatur -- black and white Italian floor tiles are teamed with his second passion: Chinese porcelain. Especially the dazzling five-coloured bencharong style, created centuries ago exclusively for export to Thailand. Many he picked up cheaply during Sunday strolls in Nakorn Kasem, Bangkok’s ‘Chinatown’.

The dining room’s centrepiece is carved teak tables originally made for gaming. These bear the insignia of King Chulalongkorn. The chandeliers Thompson procured from 18th and 19th century Thai palaces. The plates are 17th century blue-and-white porcelain.

The largest single space is the drawing room, decorated richly with paintings -- on cloth, paper, wood. Sculptures cover an astonishing 14 centuries of Thai, Burmese and Cambodian history. Burmese figurines of nat (good spirits) from Amarapura accent niches. A limestone torso of Buddha from Lopburi dates back to the 7th century.

Now Jim Thompson’s house, left fairly much as it was, is open to the public, presents like the Marie Celeste. And you feel he could pop his head around the corner and surprise you any moment …

See Jim Thompson House: Located at 6/1 Soi Kasemsan 2, near National Stadium BTS
Rama 1 Road, Bangkok. Tel: (662) 612 3601. Open for tours daily. Also a bar and restaurant on site. 

So what do YOU think happened to Jim Thompson? Let me know your theories, no matter how way out!

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