The most famous American expat in Thai history is “Jim” Thompson, who singlehandedly revived Thailand’s silk industry after WWII. Thompson remains a real legendary figure in Thailand, and throughout all of Asia, even to this day. He continues to inspire the imaginations of those who want to make it big here through hard work and perseverance.
James (“Jim”) Harrison Wilson Thompson (21 March 1906 – 26 March 26 1967, the date he disappeared) was born in Greenville, Delaware. He was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer. Thompson graduated from Princeton University and did some graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture.
Thompson moved to New York City in 1931 and worked as an architect design homes until 1940. In 1941, before the start of WWII, Thompson enlisted in the Delaware Army National Guard. He was soon encouraged to join the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
After his first OSS assignment in North Africa, Thompson was sent to Sri Lanka in May 1945 to work with the “Seri Thai (or Free Thai” Movement). This underground organisation was dedicated to ending the Japanese occupation of Thailand by clandestine means. The group also had the support of Pridi Panomyong, the regent to King Ananda Mahidol (King Rama VIII) and Seni Pramoj, Thai ambassador to the United States. Thompson arrived in Bangkok shortly WWII ended in August 1945.
In early 1946, Thompson started working as the U.S. Embassy’s military attaché. Also working at the Embassy was Kenneth Landon, an American missionary. His wife, Margaret Landon, was the best selling author of “Anna and the King of Siam”. Her book was made into a movie of the same name in 1946. This was later retitled and filmed in 1956 as “The King and I”. In 1946, Thompson joined a group of investors to buy The Oriental Hotel that was in dire need of restoration, but soon disposed of his shares due to a dispute with the other investors. He then concentrated on the locally woven silk that had caught his attention. Thompson instantly fell in love with the texture, colours and vibrancy of the scintillating silk material. He also found the whole industry was on the brink of extinction and vowed to revive it.
Along with George Barrie, they founded the Thai Silk Company Limited in 1948. They each had eighteen percent of the shares. The remaining 64% were shared by Thai and foreign investors. The company caught a huge break in 1951 when the costume designer for the hugely successful Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical play, “The King and I”, used Thompson’s silk fabrics for the cast members. Soon top fashion designers in New York also started using Thai silks in their designs. The company’s sales quickly started soaring.
Thompson was directly responsible for not only saving the entire Thai silk industry, that was in danger of disappearing, but he lifted thousands of Thais out of extreme poverty. He kept the company cottage based, so women composed the bulk of the workforce. By working on their wooden looms at home, they kept their homemaker positions and became the family breadwinners.
In 1958, Thompson put himself on the country’s architectural map by constructing a new home. This innovative structure is still unique in Thailand. The large building was composed of traditional Thai houses to display his many ‘objets d’art’. Thompson bought six old houses from upcountry then had them all dismantled and transported by river from Ayutthaya to his new property plot in Pathumwan District. On their arrival, they were offloaded and reassembled to a plan Thompson had drawn up. There were several changes from the traditional Thai house architecture. For example, Thompson’s new home had a central indoor staircase as opposed to the traditional outdoor staircase. He also had all the wall panels reversed, so the outside wall decorations now faced inside so they could be more easily seen.
Once finished in 1959, he filled his new unique mansion with hundreds of items he had collected from all his journeys. These art objects included Benjarong dinnerware, an old window from a pawn shop, Cambodian carvings, blue-and-white Ming porcelain pieces, and Thai and Burmese stone statues. It is now called the Jim Thompson House museum.
Thompson disappeared from a trip to the Malaysian Cameron Highlands on 26 March 26 1967. His disappearance generated one of the largest manhunts in SE Asian history.