Some people are larger than life. James Harrison Wilson Thompson, more commonly know as Jim, or even ‘Lord Jim’, is one such person. He is, amongst other things, credited with single-handedly revitalizing the commercial Thai silk trade. An Office of Strategic Services (OSS; precursor to the CIA) operative during the second World War, he resettled in Thailand where he was involved in a number of artistic and business ventures. At the time, Thai silk was produced in the countryside for local consumption, and was dying out because of cheap synthetic and cotton clothing imports from China. Thompson saw a potential niche, and with his natural flair for style and colour created designs which he promoted to high-end over-seas markets, gaining international recognition for his success and for the product. “Simply put, the name Jim Thompson is Thai silk, and the man has become one of the most famous foreigners to have ever lived in Thailand if not the whole of Southeast Asia.”
Then, on Easter Day 1967, at the age of 61, he took a walk in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, and was never seen again. Theories explaining his disappearance abound, but none has any reasonable evidence to support it, and no trace of him was ever found. He did, however, leave a legacy as rich and colourful as his life. The house he rebuilt in Bangkok from multiple traditional Thai teak homes and filled with precious artefacts from all over Asia, is registered as a national museum and is well worth a visit. This, together with some of his other properties, is now operated by a foundation in his name. Under Royal patronage, the James H. W. Thompson Foundation is dedicated to supporting Thai arts and artists; and the preservation and conservation of Thailand’s rich cultural heritage, especially with regards to textiles. A company bearing his name grows, cooks and serves organic produce and still manufactures, markets and sells high-quality silk products.
One of the properties, the Jim Thompson Farm, is open to the public just three weeks a year, over the December-January holiday. Art installations are on display across the farm: the work of eleven invited artists-in-residence who have studied the farm, the nearby silk factory, and the surrounding Isaan community.
Art and nature: a winning combination for a great day out. We enjoyed the sun and the silk and the colour… Still, I couldn’t help but wonder about Jim… It’s been over 40 years now since his disappearance and the legacy and legend are as big as ever. We may never know what happened that day, but we are unlikely to forget him.
We could all do much worse! Safe travels.