Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Legacy Unfulfilled

One of my favorite tourist destinations in Bangkok is the Jim Thompson House. The Grand Palace is, well, grand. But the Jim Thompson house is on a more human scale. Everything in it, from the layout of the buildings, the lush garden, the numerous beautiful artifacts, reflect the exquisite taste of one individual. One could almost imagine oneself living in such a place.

Jim Thompson was an American who came to Thailand in late 1945 just after the end of World War II. He had been serving as an intelligence officer in the office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. On his discharge in 1946, he elected to stay in Thailand and soon took an interest in the then moribund Thai silk-making industry. He almost single-handedly revived the industry, establishing the Thai Silk Company in 1948.

A student of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he also took an interest in Thai-style homes. He began to assemble his own complex on the banks of a Bangkok canal. Assemble, rather than construct, is the operative word, since Thai houses are typically modular and fairly easy to disassemble and reassemble. He found many of the elements in central Thailand not far from the historic city of Ayutthaya.

At that time it could be said that both traditions, silk-making and Thai-style homes were languishing. The elite preferred to build their mansions in marble in the Western style and import their fashions. Thai houses were for peasants. It cannot be said that Thompson revived the Thai housing traditions, as he did the silk industry, but he did assemble one of the two authentic Thai-style homes in Bangkok, the other being the traditional home of Kukrit Pramoj.

He began work on his home in the late 1950s and moved in in 1959. But he was only able to enjoy his new home for less than a decade. For in March, 1967, while visiting in the Genting Highlands of Malaysia, he left friends to go for a walk and was never seen or heard from again. To this day his disappearance remains one of Southeast Asia’s enduring mysteries, along with the death of the King’s brother, King Rama VIII, and the fate of the Laotian royal family. But his home and the many precious objects that he collected have been lovingly preserved.

The company, of course makes the most of the Jim Thompson legend. Every store has a huge black and white photograph of Thompson looking sort of like Noel Coward. Every time a year ending in seven rolls around, one can count on one or two newspaper articles recounting once again the story of his disappearance (though without providing any new revelations).

But of the Thai Silk Company, as a contemporary business enterprise under Thompson’s successors, William Booth and his son Eric, there is surprisingly little in the published record even though they have managed the company for two-thirds of its existence.

While I was living in Thailand I made a stab at reporting a company story on the Thai Silk Co. I can’t say I was rebuffed by the corporation’s public relations but they weren’t terribly forthcoming either. I set it aside for other projects. My interest was piqued when, on moving to Tokyo, I covered the opening of the new Armani Ginza Tower. That made me wonder why Jim Thompson had not become a global brand, why it had not developed into something similar to the Italian fashion giants.

The company has stores though out Thailand and a few in neighboring countries. But there is none in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo or New York. When I sent some clothes to my daughter in the US she had never heard of Jim Thompson, and the label had no special cachet for her.

There is some irony in this since it was in New York that Jim Thompson first achieved success. Costume designer Irene Sharoff used lengths of Thai silk in several of her Broadway productions in the 1960s, including, of course, the Oscar and Hammerstein musical The King and I. They were also used in the film version and the movie Ben Hur Fashion designers such as Pierre Balmain incorporated silk fashion in his designs. Queen Sirikit dazzled Americans during state visits in the 1960s wearing collections of silk gowns designed by Balmain, an advertisement for Thai silk if there ever was one. And then . . . nothing.

Of course, the obvious answer is that Thompson has been dead for more than 40 years (assuming he wasn’t kidnapped by communists or decided to chuck it all and live out the rest of his life anonymously – to recite two prevailing theories explaining his disappearance), where as many of the Italian giants, such as Giorgio Armani, are very much alive and kicking.

The Booths seem to have been competent stewards of the Jim Thompson legacy, but maybe not very inspired promoters. That’s not to say that the Jim Thompson brands have not changed with the times. They have introduced new designs, and new products and branched out modestly into home furnishings, even restaurants (ck) And the family deserves kudos for preservation of the Jim Thompson House Museum, threatened for extinction not long ago by plans to build an express way through it.

There may be another reason why Thailand has some mixed feelings about promoting the Jim Thompson brand as the most recognizable Thai product abroad. After all Thompson was a farang. Thompson was not exactly a prophet unhonored in his adopted land. He received royal decorations for his work reviving the silk industry and patronage by the royal family which has also lent its support to the house museum and the foundation that support it.

It may be that the Booths have displayed considerable political subtlety and cultural sensitivity in not boosting Thompson into a global fashion cult figure. Yet it is rather sad that the year 2006 passed in Thailand with nobody, to my knowledge, noting that it would have been the 100th anniversary Jim Thompson’s birth.


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