Every guide book and tour operator lists Jim Thompson’s Thai House and Museum, located in downtown Bangkok, on Soi Kasemsan 2, opposite the National Stadium on Rama I Road, as a must visit attraction. Advertised as the Thai Silk King and as an American adventurer, Jim Thompson’s life is probably the most misunderstood among the famous expatriates that made Thailand their home. Most likely, this is due to his mysterious disappearance, at the age of 61, in the Malaysian Jungle surrounding the Cameron Highlands retreat, where he went to spend a few days with some close friends in 1967.
Three years after Jim’s disappearance, while people still hoped he might be found or he might just return home, a close acquaintance of his, William Warren, wrote a book about his early life in Thailand and the theories that followed his disappearance. In 1998, Warren updated Jim’s biography and Archipelago Press published a second edition: Jim Thompson – The Unsolved Mystery. The book has been well-received, being reprinted several times since then and has also been translated into Japanese and French.
William Warren was born in Georgia in the United States, but settled in Bangkok where he lectured at Chulalongkorn University for 30 years. He wrote over fifty books and published many articles about art, culture, architecture, and landscape gardening in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
I tend to believe that the success of Warren’s most famous book does not rest only in the topic it deals with, but also in the writer’s elegant style. In Jim Thompson – The Unsolved Mystery, William Warren writes an unbiased account of who Jim was, where he came from, the circumstances that got him involved in the silk industry, his love for local and regional art, his friendly personality, and his famous dinner parties.
At the same time, Warren’s book debunks many of the misconceptions that both Thais and foreigners have/had about Jim. Some of the major “corrections” made are: the fact that he did not own Thai Silk, but was only a minor shareholder (the majority of the shares were owned by Thai nationals!); that he didn’t not invent Thai silk, but rather revived it (although, in the late 1940s, Thai weavers were unable to make a living from their silk and the “art of weaving” was dying); that Thai Silk made him a millionaire, when, in fact, Jim received a salary from Thai Silk which he spent, almost entirely, on antiques (though he died a millionaire as a result of a family inheritance back in the States!); and that he was a homosexual (Jim had several romantic connections with women both in Thailand and the US, but never remarried).
Once these issues are addressed, William Warren discusses more sensitive problems, such as Jim’s work as an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) agent; his alleged collaboration with the CIA; his connections to the former Thai Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong, the Communist insurgency in the northeast, and the dissident nationalists from Vietnam and Lao; and the Fine Art Department’s accusations of stealing the Thai nation’s treasures (Jim was an avid collector, among others, of Buddhist art).
“The Episode of the Five White Heads” which took place in 1962 marked Jim Thompson profoundly, eventually resulting in his decision not to collect Thai Buddhist art anymore, and rather concentrate on Chinese porcelain. Jim bought from his art dealer five very beautifully carved Buddha heads, which he knew were most likely stolen from a cave in the north of Thailand he himself had tried to reach, but couldn’t. The Fine Art Department threatened him with legal action if he did not hand them the Buddha heads and, after he was visited by the Thai police, Jim gave them the five statues, though he never received compensation for them.
This episode is important not only for the fact that the Thai government treated him like a thief (when he had already given all his Thailand possessions to the Thai people through a will that, upon his death, left his house and art collection in the care of Siam Society), but also because it severed his relation with Siam Society (which did not intervene in his favour). Subsequently, Jim wrote another will, leaving all his possessions to a nephew, but, unfortunately, he misplaced it, causing even more controversy when Siam Society claimed to be his legal benefactor. The will was eventually found and a foundation was established to deal with his Thai inheritance.
If in the first part of Jim Thompson – The Unsolved Mystery, William Warren deals with Jim’s life as the “King of Thai Silk” (a title the author doesn’t really favour!), the second part is dedicated to the many theories that (tried) to explain his sudden and mysterious disappearance. From the large variety of possibilities, Warren concludes that four explanations have the most chance of being close to what had actually happened: 1) Jim was kidnapped for ransom by gangs from Malaysia; 2) he committed suicide of alleged personal reasons and made sure his body could not be found; 3) he went off or was kidnapped for political purposes (the theory is too complicated and sensitive to be summarized in a one-sentence explanation); and 4) he had some sort of accident in the jungle.
But, and this is a big but, because his body was never found, because no ransom was claimed, and because all tips the family and the police received regarding his whereabouts reached a dead end, all four theories cannot be supported by even the “smallest shred of evidence, even circumstantial.” Thus, they remain exactly what they are: theories.
“Thompson was a legend, and legends, as an American official observed not long after the disappearance, tend to breed further legends when they are involved in any sort of mystery.” Because of this, apart from Warren’s book, there have been at least two other books inspired by Jim’s mystery. One of them is a French thriller by Gerard de Villers, S.A.S. Gold of the River Kwai (1968), a James Bond-type of book, loosely inspired by Jim’s life. The other, with more scholarly pretentions, is Edward Roy De Souza’s book entitled …Solved! The Mysterious Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Silk King. It’s needless to say that neither of these books bring any light into Jim’s disappearance. (Jim Thompson is also the name of an American writer of crime fiction, who lived between 1906-1977. They are not related.)
Most recently, in 2011, Joshua Kurlantzic authored The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War, a book which explores more closely Jim’s connections with the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA). Although at a point Thompson was under investigation by the CIA for “un-American activities” (regarding his opinions about the Vietnam War) he was cleared. Still, Jim’s CIA file remains classified, adding once again more fuel to the fire that maintains his legend.
Seven year after his disappearance, Jim Thompson was declared legally dead in 1974 by both Thai and American authorities. His Thailand estate and art collection is managed by the Jim Thompson Foundation.
The Jim Thompson House is open every day between 9:00 and 17:00 with the last guided tour at 17:00 (the guided tours around the house are compulsory). Admission for adults is 100 baht and for students 50 baht. The nearest BTS station is National Stadium.
Jim Thompson Art Center (located in the same compound) organized group and solo exhibition by local and foreign artists.
Also, nearby, William Warren Library, located on the fourth floor of Henry B. Thompson Building (6 Soi Kasemsan 2), provides lending services to the general public. The library is operated by the Foundation and focuses on Asian arts, textiles and culture. It is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 9:00 to 17:00 and the annual registration fee is only 500 baht. The library also hosts regular lectures and workshops. For more information on both the art center and the library visit their website.