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Jim Thompson: Thailand’s Silk King

Jim Thompson: Thailand’s Silk King

The Life and Legacy of James H. W. Thompson


Most people in Thailand are familiar with the Ban Krua community and its continuing dispute with the Expressway Transit Authority [ETA] over land expropriation for a proposed new access road. Rather fewer people will be aware, however, of Ban Krua's unique contribution to the revival of the Thai silk industry, in cooperation with the legendary Jim Thompson, nearly fifty years ago.

On a warm Sunday afternoon in March 1967, James H. W. Thompson, a successful American businessman and well-known resident of Bangkok, disappeared whilst on holiday in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands. To this day his fate remains unknown - he simply walked out of the cottage where he was staying, and never came back.

At the time, and for months afterwards, the media was filled with speculation as to his fate. He had been kidnapped by the communists or he was an agent of the Chinese (this was, after all, the height of the cold war). Alternatively, he had been kidnapped or killed by bandits or business rivals. Some argued, seriously, that he had fallen under the spell of an aboriginal Semang woman and was living with her in the jungle.  More probably - but less sensationally - he had simply fallen down a concealed cave, or suffered a stroke and been eaten by wild animals. Whatever the case, the truth, like Jim Thompson, has never been found.

With his disappearance, Thompson became the stuff of legend and his story the property of the media. But the enterprising American businessmen left behind more tangible legacies, too. A resurrected and resilient Thai Silk industry, a traditional teak home of impeccable taste which would become an exquisite museum of Southeast Asian arts, and a reformed community in the heart of Bangkok. For Thompson lived by the banks of the Saen Saep Canal, on the southern fringes of Ban Krua. His fortune was linked inextricably to the Ban Krua Chams, whose traditional skills Thompson used to rebuild the Thai Silk industry. And from the profits of that industry, Ban Krua acquired a new prosperity.

Jim Thompson first arrived in Thailand in September, 1945, at the end of the Second World War. A member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the clandestine wartime US intelligence service, Thompson's original mission in the Far East was to parachute into Thailand's remote north-east, where he would foment resistance against the Japanese. The atom bomb, and Japan's sudden surrender, caused a change of plans however, and Thompson flew directly to Bangkok. Here, as one of the first Americans to enter Thailand after the Allied victory, he became OSS Station Chief and set about the business of re-establishing the United States Embassy. He also began a love affair with the country and its people which, unbeknown to him at the time, would change both his own life, and that of the Ban Krua Chams.

In 1946, when Thompson received his military discharge, he determined to stay on in the warm and exotic land he had worked to liberate. Casting about for a new career, he began to travel widely upcountry, whilst at the same time working on the renovation and improvement of Bangkok's famous Oriental Hotel. During exploratory visits to Thailand's isolated and impoverished north-east, Thompson became interested in the almost extinct cottage silk industry, and began making enquiries.

Once, it transpired, raw silk - the product of mulberry trees which grew well in the semi-arid soil of the north-east - had been sold to weavers in Bangkok, producing a useful auxiliary income for the poor north-eastern farmers. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, with the rise of cheap, machine-made textiles from abroad, the trade went into decline, and the Bangkok weaving-houses stopped purchasing raw silk from the north-east. By the end of the Second World War, when Thompson visited, only a handful of local, Lao-speaking villagers still produced raw silk for their own limited use, dyeing and weaving in the shaded area beneath their stilt houses.

Thompson examined all the samples of locally-woven north-eastern silk he could find, and became very excited by the raw, shot-silk texture and traditional Lao designs - so different from the smooth, almost featureless quality of machine-made silk. He felt convinced that products of such unusual beauty must have market appeal, if only the industry was organised properly, and Thai silk brought to the attention of the right people.

Back in Bangkok, Thompson began seriously to investigate the ailing Thai silk industry. He collected all the samples he could, consulted Thai friends on the subject, and examined a small collection of old pieces held in the National Museum. His researches taught him that the traditional weaving process was slow and laborious. Raw silk, brought to the capital from the north-east, was dyed by hand using mostly natural vegetable products. It was then woven - again by hand - on simple wood-and-bamboo looms. The resulting product was both lustrous and lumpy, an unexpected texture fondly characterised by Thompson as "humps and bumps". The colours were vivid, and combined in often startling combinations of lime and magenta, or azure and pink. Thompson was entranced, and set about tracking down Bangkok's few remaining weaving families.

By 1947, when Thompson began his hunt, the indigenous silk trade had almost ceased to exist. Most weaving families had abandoned their traditional livelihood in favour of other skills, and the few that remained were scattered and unorganised, regarding weaving as an auxiliary source of income at best. None were engaged in the trade full-time. Only in one locality - an impoverished canal-side district known as Ban Krua - could Thompson find a community of weavers still living in proximity to each other. To his surprise, in a country which is overwhelmingly Buddhist, the Ban Krua weavers were Muslim - a fact which helps to explain the community's survival. Requirements of worship, dietary rules, and long-established family links had kept the weavers living side-by-side, albeit most of their looms had fallen silent.

Excited by his discovery, Thompson began to visit Ban Krua on a regular basis, making friends with the weavers and learning all he could about the silk industry. He soon discovered that the people of Ban Krua were Muslim Chams, the descendants of prisoners of war captured in Cambodia more than a hundred years before. Thompson mentioned this to his friend James Scott, the US Commercial Attaché in Bangkok, whose previous posting had been in Damascus. Scott, who shared Thompson's enthusiasm for Thai silk, was quick to point out that the manufacture of Syrian silk brocade, long considered an arcane folk-art, had but recently developed into a flourishing export trade.

The people of Ban Krua were somewhat flattered, and more than a little puzzled, by the strange American's increasingly frequent visits. A good-natured and hospitable people, they doubtless considered him an eccentric farang  - the generic Thai term for Westerners, derived from the Arabic farangi  - but had little faith in his plans to regenerate their traditional livelihood. Thompson persevered, and persuaded one weaver - who was working as a plumber at the time - to produce a number of lengths of silk in traditional colours which might serve as samples of the craft.

Armed with these samples, Thompson boarded a plane for the United States, bound for his native New York. Here he approached the editor of Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, who was an old acquaintance and also the only person Thompson knew who was in any way connected to the fashion industry. In this way he obtained an introduction to Edna Woolman Chase, then editor of Vogue, and general arbiter of all good taste in the world of fashion. According to the legend, Mrs Chase took one look at the lengths of Ban Krua silk spread out across her desk, and fell in love. Within weeks a dress in the new material by Valentina, the New York designer, graced the pages of Vogue. Thai silk was "in". Jim Thompson was on his way to a personal fortune, and the Cham weavers of Ban Krua were about to achieve a new prosperity.

The rest, as they say, is history. Thompson went on to found the Thai Silk Company Ltd., in 1948. He encouraged the Ban Krua weavers to work independently, from their own homes, purchasing silk from them on a consignment basis in a successful bid to promote competition and maintain quality. On a personal basis, he visited Ban Krua daily to inspect the material being produced, suggest new colour combinations, and maintain good community relations. Although urged by advisers to centralise production and set up a mechanised factory, Thompson would have none of it. He wanted things done the old way, so that Thai Silk Company produce would retain its individuality and unique appeal.

Meanwhile the silk-weavers of Ban Krua prospered, and some grew wealthy. Material possessions such as televisions, refrigerators, and motor bikes became commonplace. On a spiritual plane, the new-found wealth of the community led to a marked increase in the number of Hajjis - those who had made the expensive pilgrimage to distant Mecca. Encouraged by Thompson's success, other Thai silk businesses were set up, many of which prospered. Thompson, always a firm believer in the benefits of competition, welcomed this development as an indication of the Thai silk industry's resurgence.

Today, Thai Silk is renowned for its high quality and unique style throughout the world, and the industry Jim Thompson revived employs more than twenty thousand people. In recent years much of the industry has become mechanised, and factories have taken over the bulk of production. But in the narrow back alleys of the Ban Krua community, the small cottage industry Thompson brought back to life still continues to thrive - a testimony both to the skill of the Cham artisans who live there, and to an American of vision who believed in them.

• In April, 1959, Jim Thompson settled in a Thai-style house just across the Saen Saep Canal from Ban Krua. This remarkable building, comprising several antique wooden houses brought from upcountry and assembled to Thompson's specification, remained home to the silk magnate until his untimely disappearance in 1967. Built to house not just Thompson, but also his unique collection of Southeast Asian art, the house today functions as a museum, and is open to the public.

Voices From Ban Krua

Very few of the people of Ban Krua speak Cham, and only the oldest folk - like eighty-three year old Sharifa - can speak Khmer with any fluency. They have been settled in Thailand for almost two centuries, and Thai is the language of everyday life, Arabic the language of religion.

A long, narrow lane winds from east to west through the heart of Ban Krua, passing the Masjid Salamiyya, the community's second mosque, which boasts a madrassa, or religious school, as well as a splendid lamp presented to the community over a century ago by the Siamese king. The lane continues past a number of fine old wooden houses, including one belonging to Khun Arunee, built over eighty years ago by her great grandfather. Hanging on the walls are souvenirs of past journeys to Mecca, including a picture of Hajji Ismail, the founder of the house, in sarong and turban at the turn of the century.

Finally, as the lane approaches the eastern side of Ban Krua, houses of silk-weavers begin to appear - and, on the far side of the canal, the elegant eaves of a wooden Thai mansion. This is "Jim Thompson's House", once home to the American silk magnate who resuscitated the Thai silk industry using the skills of Ban Krua's weavers, and now a museum of Southeast Asian arts. The leading community spokesperson in this district is Khun Somsiri, known as Doi for short:

"Of course Jim Thompson has been dead - disappeared, I should say - for nearly thirty years now, but the community - especially the old people - still remember him. He was kind and helpful, always ready to help people develop their silk businesses" she says. "He liked to come to weddings and other special occasions, and he was a popular figure. Even today we still remember him. Not long ago the Ban Krua volunteer fire service, which we maintain to guard against arson, helped the fire brigade put out a fire at the Jim Thompson Silk Company warehouse", she adds with pride.

Pi Ud, who runs Malin Silk Shop on the banks of Saen Saep Canal, is too young to remember Jim Thompson personally - but she confirms with enthusiasm the role played by the American businessman in bringing the industry back to life. "Without him I don't think the silk industry would have survived in Ban Krua, and I don't suppose I would be running a silk shop today", she says with a smile. "The older silk weavers remember him still, and say he was kind but business-like - he always wanted to try out new styles and new colours, and he certainly knew about silk". And what of business today? "Not as good as it once was. There is too much competition from big factories. Everyone is making silk, even upcountry away from Bangkok. And some people are mixing in imported machine made silk... really, it's too bad. In Ban Krua are shops are still small, but waht we make is the real thing. If you want good Thai silk, come back to Malin Silk".

On a more serious note, Sarote Phuaksamlee, the leading Ban Krua community spokesperson, and his brother Sompote, are quick to point out the service Ban Krua's Chams did the nation as a whole in helping to resurrect the Thai Silk industry. "Today the industry is worth literally millions, and the name 'Thai' has become synonymous with quality silk throughout the world. Under the circumstances, it seems ironic that big business interests can threaten the destruction of our community, after living in this place for two hundred years, whilst just forgetting our contribution to the country we love.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media