Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Jim Thompson: From Man to Brand

BANGKOK - When I spied the 'JT 'on the front of a baseball-style cap in the gift shop at the Jim Thompson House and Museum, I realized things had changed. I was last at this lovely and deservedly popular tourist attraction in 1998, when it was somewhat less commercial. Thompson, who is presumed to have died more than 40 years ago, was by then already a legend, with a life right out of the movies; since then, he's also become a brand, with Jim Thompson shirts, dresses and other apparel on sale around town.

Ah, well. That's what happens when someone gets famous and has a certain allure. Thompson had that, plus a history as a stylish Westerner in the Far East and a link to apparel anyway. He is credited with having almost single-handedly revived traditional Thai silk weaving, which had nearly died out in the age of synthetic fabrics. He founded and ran a successful trading company to promote the newly dynamic trade. Then, one day in 1967, he went for a walk at a remote Malaysian resort and never came back.

Speculation adores a vacuum, of course, and there has subsequently been oodles of speculation about the U.S.-born Thompson, a Princeton-educated architect and entrepreneur who served in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in World War II. Once a spook, always a spook, the speculation goes. Thompson could have been an undercover asset to the CIA. The war in Vietnam was raging at the time of his unsolved disappearance, and maybe he had enemies.

The mystery adds to the appeal of Thompson's former abode, but in fact the place ( would be a popular draw anyway. It is simply beautiful, filled with accomplished Southeast Asian art and consisting of six traditional Thai homes, made of teak and topped with the signature upturned rooftops. The six houses, brought to Bangkok from all around Thailand, were combined to form one big, beautful home. It is located by a canal and flanked with lush, green, flowery tropical gardens.

A person could wander happily for hours there. I did just that on my recent visit to Bangkok, the first time I have returned to the Jim Thompson House. While the Thompson brand, as noted, was not so omnipresent in '98, the house is just as I'd remembered it. It is itself a work of art, with its dining room table set for six, its long wooden window shutters, its central staircase, polished wood floors, dark wood walls, the stubs in doorways meant to stop evil spirits from moving along the floors and getting into the rooms. Big electric fans standing on the floor do their best to stir the heavy, humid air in the perpetual Bangkok heat. Two fellow travelers pointed out to me that the European-style chandeliers don't fit with the rest of the house, and they're right. But chandeliers aside, the house works marvelously as a coherent whole.

I didn't buy anything in the inevitable museum gift shop, but the house itself - once isolated among rice fields, now flanked by modern buildings and located near Thailand's National Stadium, is a gift to the spirit. With an adult admission price of 100 baht (about $3 U.S.) and half that for children, it is a bargain. I got there by taking the capital's gleaming, easy to use elevated light rail line, SkyTrain (fare: 30 baht). You go to National Stadium station on the Silom Line, take exit 1 and walk about five minutes along a narrow lane off the main street. The way is well-posted, and the trip is well worth taking.

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