Malaysia & Thailand - On the footsteps of Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson or James Harrison Wilson Thompson was born in Greenville, Delaware in 1906. He attended public schools in Wilmington, went on to boarding school at St. Paul's and attended Princeton University, the family university, from 1924 to 1928.


Although Thompson had a keen interest in art, he chose to become an architect and went on to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a practicing architect in New York City until 1940.

 

With the escalation of the war in Europe in the early 1940s, Thompson volunteered for service in the United States Army, an important turning point in his life.

During the Second World War, Thompson was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a move which offered him an opportunity to see more of the world.


Thompson as a member of an OSS group was assigned to work with French forces in North Africa. His assignments also took him into Italy, France and Asia.

To prepare for his mission, Thompson undertook rigorous training in jungle survival. He completed the course successfully.


However the war ended abruptly as Thompson and the other OSS men were en route to Bangkok. A few weeks later, he assumed the duties of OSS station chief. In late 1946, he received orders to return to the States to receive his military discharge.

 

Thompson was confident that with peace restored and the expansion of air travel, there would be a significant increase in leisure travel to the Far East. Upon their arrival in the capital, these travelers would need acceptable accommodation.


Few hotels in Bangkok could then even be considered of international standard. Only one had an ideal location - the old Oriental, a former palace overlooking the Chao Phraya River that flowed through the capital.

 

It was a meeting place for travelers and a social center for the foreign community. Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham were just a few of its famous patrons. Excited by the prospects presented, Thompson became actively involved in the reorganization of the Oriental Hotel.


By this time, Thompson had developed a certain fondness for the country and its people. He began to seriously contemplate settling down and going into business in Thailand. He foresaw a promising future for the country and wanted to be a part of this process. He decided that upon leaving the service, he would return and take up residence in Thailand permanently.

 

  With his artistic inclination, Thompson instantly found the remarkable beauty and extraordinary qualities of Thai silk, both fascinating and alluring.


Traditionally the production of raw silk provided a supplemental source of income for many families in the northeast, most of whom were farmers. The raw silk was sent to Bangkok to supply weavers in the capital but by 1946, the hand weaving of Thai silk had become an ailing cottage industry. The use of silk was reserved for special or ceremonial occasions and so the demand for silk was small to start with.

 

Traditional silk weaving process is a slow and laborious process with the silk being used to make the traditional Thai style of dress. Despite its rich color, silk faded quickly with repeated washing as natural vegetable dyes were used in the dyeing process.

With the advent of industrialization in the early twentieth century, ever rising demand for cheaper machine-made textiles from factories in Europe and Japan, dealt a devastating blow to traditional silk weaving.


Families continued to weave silk but it was predominantly for their own use and little attention was paid to its quality. Even fewer families engaged in silk weaving, its further decline seemed inevitable and irreversible.


In spite of such a daunting scenario, Thompson was confident that the brilliance, and distinctive qualities of Thai silk would draw significant interest overseas.

To assess this potential, he had several lengths of silk in a range of colors woven to his specifications and set off in 1947 for New York to see if he could successfully market the silk and source sophisticated buyers for his extraordinary merchandise.

 





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