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Jim Thompson (designer)

James Harrison Wilson "Jim" Thompson (born March 21, 1906 in Greenville, Delaware - unknown) was an American businessman who helped revitalize Thailand's silk and textile industry in the 1950s and 1960s. A former U.S. military intelligence officer who once worked for the Office of Strategic Services, Thompson mysteriously disappeared while going for a walk on Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967 in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. Many hypotheses have been put forward to explain Jim's disappearance, and there were some reported sightings of him after his disappearance, but what happened to him still remains one of the greater unsolved mysteries of Southeast Asia.

Education and professional background

Jim Thompson was the youngest of five children of Henry and Mary Thompson, a wealthy Delaware couple. Jim's father was involved in the textile business. Jim was educated at St. Paul's School and Princeton University. Though Thompson studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he never received his degree and was therefore unable to pass the NY Architecture Board examination. Nevertheless, he practiced in New York City with Holden McLaughlin, designing summer homes and a band shell in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

During the 1930s, he led an active social life and sat on the board of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, all the while becoming more politically active. His increasingly liberal politics alienated him from his wealthy Republican family, and by 1940 he had sought escape from them by military service, first in the Delaware National Guard and then in the Officer Training Corps of the United States Army.

World War II activities

During World War II, he was recruited by William Joseph Donovan and served as a commissioned officer in the Office of Strategic Services (which in 1947 was disbanded in place of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency). Thompson used his fluent French on daring missions behind enemy lines in German-occupied France. After Victory in Europe Day (May 7 - May 8, 1945), Thompson was transferred to Ceylon. He was about to be deployed in Thailand when the Surrender of Japan in August-September of the same year officially ended World War II. Thompson arrived in Thailand several weeks after Victory over Japan Day to take charge of the Bangkok OSS office.

Leaving the US Army in 1946, he returned home to bring his wife back to Thailand. She did not agree to this and divorced him. Thompson returned to Bangkok, embarking on a renovation of the Oriental Hotel with a number of partners. From here he worked with a number of Thai investors to found the Thai Silk Company, in 1947. Although he officially abandoned intelligence activities, many have suspected he was still a non-official cover. During the Vietnam War, his closest friend, General Edwin Black, was in charge of United States Air Force operations over Laos and Thailand.

Return to private industry

A civilian once more, Thompson devoted himself to revitalizing a cottage industry of hand-woven silk, which had for centuries been a household craft in Thailand but was dying out. Thompson located a group of Muslim (Cham) weavers in the Bangkok neighborhood of Bankrua and provided hitherto unavailable color-fast dyes, standardized looms, and technical assistance to those interested in weaving on a piece-work basis.

Besides inventing the bright jewel tones and dramatic color combinations nowadays associated with Thai silk, he raised thousands of Thailand's poorest people out of poverty, making millionaires out of his core group of weavers by giving them shares of the Thai Silk Company. His endeavour showed a profit from its first year of operation. Thompson's determination to keep his company cottage-based was significant for the women who made up the bulk of his work force. By allowing them to work at home, choosing their hours and looking after their children while weaving, they retained their position in the household while becoming breadwinners.

It was only after Thompson's disappearance that the Thai Silk Company relocated its weaving operations to Khorat, a city which serves as a base of operations for the Royal Thai Army. Although the Company abandoned home-based weaving in favor of factories in the early 1970s, the Thai Silk Company's Khorat facility looks more like a beautifully landscaped campus than a factory.

As Thompson was building his company, he also became a major collector of Southeast Asian art, which at the time was not well-known internationally. He built a superb collection of Buddhist and secular art not only from Thailand but from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, frequently travelling to those countries on buying trips.

In 1958 he began what was to be the pinnacle of his architectural achievement, a new home to showcase his art collection. Formed from parts of six antique Thai houses, his home (completed in 1959) sits on a klong (canal) across from Bangkrua, where his weavers were then located. Most of the 19th century houses were dismantled and moved from Ayutthaya, but the largest - a weaver's house (now the living room) - came from Bangkrua. The Jim Thompson House, now a museum, is the second most popular tourist attraction in Bangkok, surpassed only by the Grand Palace in visitor attendance.

Disappearance

Thompson disappeared mysteriously after going for an afternoon walk on Easter Sunday in the Cameron Highlands in Pahang, Malaysia, on March 26, 1967. It was unusual that he left his cigarettes and a small silver "jungle box" on the chair outside Moonlight Cottage. This suggests that he did not expect to be gone long. He was never found, and the theories for his disappearance are many, some plausible and others ridiculous. The most likely are probably that he was the victim of a robbery and accidental murder or that he fell into an aboriginal animal trap (a pit with a spike) and was buried by the Orang Asli when they discovered what had happened.

Trivia

Thompson's disappearance inspired the 1986 entry into the Choose Your Own Adventure children's book series, The Case of the Silk King by Shannon Gilligan.

See also

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