Jim Thompson (designer)

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Jim Thompson
Born James H.W. Thompson
21 March 1906
Greenville, Delaware, United States of America
Disappeared 26 March 1967 (aged 61)
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Status Declared dead in absentia
Citizenship American
Alma mater Princeton University
University of Pennsylvania
Occupation Co-founder of Thai Silk Company
Known for "Mysterious" Disappearance in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Spouse(s) Patricia Thraves (divorced)

Jim Thompson (born James Harrison Wilson Thompson; born 21 March 1906 — disappeared 26 March 1967) was an American businessman who helped revitalize the Thai silk industry in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time of his disappearance he was one of the most famous Americans living in Asia. Time magazine claimed he "almost singlehanded(ly) saved Thailand's vital silk industry from extinction".[1]

Education and professional background[edit]

Jim Thompson was born in Greenville, Delaware, USA. He was the youngest of five children of Henry and Mary Thompson. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer; his mother was the daughter of James Harrison Wilson (1837–1925), a noted Union general during the American Civil War.

Thompson spent his early years of education at St. Paul's boarding school. He graduated from Princeton University in 1928. Post-graduate studies followed at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture, but he did not complete his degree at this institution due to his weakness in calculus.

From 1931 to 1940, he practiced in New York City with Holden, McLaughlin & Associates, designing homes for the East Coast rich and a band shell in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. His blueprints were reviewed and signed off by certified architects.

Throughout the 1930s, he led an active social life and sat on the board of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He also became politically active, but his liberal politics alienated him from his conservative family.

In 1941, he quit his job and enlisted with the Delaware National Guard regiment. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, he was transferred to a military outpost in Fort Monroe, Virginia. While he was here, he got to know Second Lieutenant Edwin F. Black, a fresh graduate from the US Military Academy, West Point. It was Black who encouraged him to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.[2]

World War II activities[edit]

At the height of the Second World War, Thompson was recruited by William Joseph Donovan (1883–1959) to serve as an operative in the OSS.

His first assignment was with the French resistance forces in North Africa. He was then sent to Europe. After Victory in Europe Day (7–8 May 1945), he was transferred to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to work with the pro-Allied Seri Thai or Free Thai Movement. Their mission was to help liberate Thailand from the occupying Japanese Army. The group had the support of Pridi Panomyong, the regent to King Ananda Mahidol of Thailand and Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador to the United States.


I do love the color and general confusion of the Far East. There is so much to see and learn out here.

Jim Thompson [3]

In August 1945, Thompson was about to be sent into Thailand, when the Surrender of Japan officially ended World War II. He arrived in Thailand shortly after Victory over Japan Day and organized the Bangkok OSS office. It was here he got to know Mrs. Constance (Connie) Mangskau, an Allied Services translator, who later became one of his closest friends.

In the spring of 1946, Thompson went to work as military attaché at the United States legation for his former Princeton classmate Charles Yost, the U.S. Minister to Thailand. Thompson used his contacts with the Free Thai and Free Lao groups to gather information and defuse conflicts on Thailand's borders. Working with him in the Legation was Kenneth Landon, an American missionary[4] whose wife, Margaret Landon, was the author of Anna and the King of Siam, which was the inspiration for a 1946 drama of the same name, and the The King and I in 1956.

Return to private industry[edit]

In late 1946, Thompson headed for home to seek his discharge from the army. After his divorce from Patricia Thraves, he returned to Thailand to join a group of investors to buy The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. While working on its restoration, he had some differences with his associates and this resulted in him giving up his shares. He subsequently switched his focus to silk.

In 1948, he partnered with George Barrie to found the Thai Silk Company. It was capitalized at US$25,000. They each bought eighteen percent of the shares. The remaining sixty-four percent were sold to Thai and foreign investors.

A functioning loom on exhibit at the Jim Thompson House

The firm achieved a coup in 1951 when designer Irene Sharaff made use of Thai silk fabrics for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I. From then on, the company prospered.

There was no secret in the way Thompson ran his business.

“In the first instance,” he said, “we run a dependable operation with a high standard of quality and reliability. Whenever we come up with a pattern or color that sells well, we make sure we stick to its exact formula. That way, our customers can rest assured that when they reorder, they will get a consistent product.”

“Equally important,” he added, “is that the cottage industry in this part of the world is more significant than what most people realize. Most of the weavers in this area either don’t care or don’t need to know who are buying their products. But it is necessary for us to know what our customers' tastes and requirements are.

"The Thai silk-weavers technique is hundreds of years old. Every child learned how to weave but each family wove enough for its own needs. Their styles and colors are not suitable for foreign consumption. It took us a long time to know what the world markets required. It makes no difference to us as to how well we know our clients. What really matters is whether they like our products or not.

Thompson’s private collection of silk garments which were used for the stage musical The King and I.

"(I must say) that silk in itself possesses a great deal of glamour. It has an aura of exotic mystery and richness about it. For centuries it has been the fabric of kings and queens. From the way our sales are going, everyone must be dressing like royalty."[5]

Besides inventing the bright jewel tones and dramatic color combinations today associated with Thai silk, he raised thousands of Thailand's poorest people out of poverty. His 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, 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 Korat, a city which serves as a base of operations for the Royal Thai Army. Although it abandoned home-based weaving in favor of factories in the early 1970s, the Thai Silk Company's Korat facility looks more like a landscaped campus than a factory.

Thompson's "House on the Klong"[edit]

Main article: Jim Thompson House
Main building, Jim Thompson House, Bangkok, Thailand (c. 2013).

Thompson was unlike any other figure in Southeast Asia. He was an American, an ex-architect, a retired army officer, a one-time spy, a silk merchant and a renowned collector of antiques. Most of his treasures, if not all, were amassed after he came to Thailand.

In 1958, he began what was to be the pinnacle of his architectural achievement – the construction of a new home to showcase his objets d'art.

Jim Thompson House: Service building and gift shop.

Using parts of old up-country houses – some as old as a hundred years – he succeeded in constructing a masterpiece that involved the reassembling of six Thai dwellings on his estate. Most of the units were dismantled and brought over by river from Ayutthaya, but the largest – a weaver's house (now the living room) – came from Bangkrua. On arrival, the woodwork was offloaded and pieced together.

Jim Thompson House: Pond reflection of retail store.

In his quest for authenticity, he saw to it that some of the structures were elevated a full floor above the ground. During the construction stage, he added his own touches to the buildings by positioning, for instance, a central staircase indoors rather than having it outside. Along the way, he also reversed the wall panels of his quarters so that it now faced inside instead of it having an external orientation.[6]

After he was through with its creation, he filled his home with the items he had collected in the past. Decorating his rooms were Chinese blue-and-white Ming pieces, Belgian glass, Cambodian carvings, Victorian chandeliers, Benjarong earthenware, Thai stone images, Burmese statues, and a dining table which was once used by King Rama V of Thailand.

It took Thompson almost a year to complete his mansion. Now a museum, the Jim Thompson House can be reached by public or private transport. At 6 Soi Kasemsan (2) Song on Rama I Road, it is open daily from 9am to 5pm. The last guided tour of the complex is at 5pm.


Thompson heads for Malaysia

Thompson flew out of Bangkok on Thursday, 23 March 1967. He arrived in George Town, Penang in the afternoon. Accompanying him on his trip was Mrs. Constance (Connie) Mangskau, 59, his long-time acquaintance. They stayed at the Ambassador Hotel (now the Merchant Court Hotel). They spent the rest of the day touring the island in a taxi.

"Moonlight" bungalow: Thompson stayed here on three occasions. On his last visit to the Highlands, he left the cottage at 1.30pm.[7][8][9][10] He failed to return before 6pm.

The following morning, they left Penang for the Cameron Highlands. This was their third visit to the retreat. They reached Tanah Rata in the afternoon. They stayed at “Moonlight” bungalow with Dr. Ling Tien Gi, a Singaporean-Chinese chemist and Mrs. Helen Ling, his Caucasian American-born wife.[11]


At 1.30pm,[12][13][14] Thompson left ("Moonlight") for a walk on his own — never to return — launching the largest manhunt Malaysia has ever known.

Simon Ostheimer [15]

The next day, Thompson and Dr. Ling got up early to explore a trail in the neighborhood. Later, they had lunch with Mrs. Ling and Mrs. Mangskau at a nearby club.

After their meal, they returned to "Moonlight" for a nap. At about 4pm, they got up for some tea. In the evening, they headed for Ye Olde Smokehouse Inn to have dinner with Dr. Einar Ammundsen. The Dane was at the resort by coincidence. After dinner, they called it a day.

Thompson goes for a stroll

On Sunday, 26 March, all four attended the morning services at All Souls' Church. They returned to "Moonlight" after the services ended.


… Mrs. Ling and Mrs. Mangskau witnessed Thompson’s leave-taking at 1.30pm. As for Dr. Ling, he could only presume that Thompson left his home at 3.30pm.

SOLVED! (2nd ed), page 92. [16]

After lunch, Thompson left the bungalow for an afternoon stroll. He failed to return before 6pm.[7][8]

Dr. Ling took it that Thompson left the estate at approximately 3.30pm. In an interview with The Straits Times, he said:

"I heard footsteps pass by my bedroom door about 3.30pm and presumed it was Mr. Thompson taking a stroll."[17][18][19]

Mrs. Ling, however, felt otherwise. She told the Eastern Sun that Thompson left her home at 1.30pm. She said, "Mr. Thompson told her and Mrs. Mangskau at 1.30pm just before going for the walk: 'Good night, sweethearts'."

Asked why the 'good night' bit during noon, Mrs. Ling replied, "It has always been our practice, despite the time of the day or night to say good night whenever we wanted to retire for the night or for a siesta."

The report concluded, "... with the wave of the hand, Mr. Thompson was gone."[18][19][20]

Thompson fails to return

Map of the Cameron Highlands.

After 6pm, Dr. Ling got into his car and drove to a nearby club. He was confident he would meet Thompson along the way. He never did. At 8.30pm, he went ahead and lodged a police report.[21]

Lutheran Mission bungalow: The chalet is located at A45 Kamunting Road (Malay: Jalan Kamunting). It is approximately 1,440 meters from “Moonlight” bungalow. After leaving “Moonlight” at 1.30pm,[7][8][19][22] Thompson was seen at this place at about 4pm. He left the premises after taking a look at the garden.

Police comb area

At daybreak, about five policemen showed up at "Moonlight" bungalow. After taking a look at Thompson's passport, they left the scene. Later that morning, the police, with the help of thirty aborigines, combed the area. The survey was intensive but there were no signs of him.

Massive hunt for Thompson

The next day (28 March), the biggest hunt in Malaysian history was staged.[8][21] It involved the police, the army, Orang Asli trekkers, Gurkhas, tourists, residents, adventurers, fortune tellers, border scouts, missionaries, American school students and British servicemen convalescing at the haven.

The sweep of the forest was thorough but there was no trace of Thompson. The police concluded he could either be trapped or accidentally injured. However, they were convinced he would be able to find his way back. His previous jungle-survival training, they reasoned, would see him through whatever difficulties he was in.

Thompson seen at Lutheran home

On Wednesday, 29 March, the police were provided with some clues that they found useful in their hunt for Thompson.


I still insist, like others who know far more about the affair than I do, that he (Thompson) disappeared by his own choice and will, and not by force.

Richard Hughes [23]

Che Fatimah binte Mohamed Yeh, 24, a cook at the Lutheran Mission bungalow, told Superintendent A.S. Nathan that she had seen Thompson on Easter Sunday at about 4pm.

"I was in the kitchen," she said, "when I saw him come up the road. He had on a white shirt and a pair of gray slacks. He stopped for a while to take a look at the garden. While looking at the plants, he did not speak to anyone. A short while later, he left the premises."[24][25]

Mount (Gunung) Batu Brinchang
After attending the Sunday services at All Souls’ Church, did Thompson and his three friends head for Mount Batu Brinchang? Unlikely.
The church services ended at about noon. If they had drove home to collect their food hamper they would have reached "Moonlight" at about 12.15pm. The travelling time from "Moonlight" (foreground) to Mount Batu Brinchang (background) was more than an hour.[26]
It is doubtful they could have gone there for a picnic and returned home at 2.30pm.[26]

Was Thompson behind his disappearance?

The mystery of Thompson was not only puzzling; it also stirred many to come up with their own conclusion.


I saw him (Thompson) leave a hotel in Tahiti and called after him,” (Edward) Pollitz is reported to have said, “but he got into a taxi and left. There was an elderly lady in the back seat.”

The businessman’s subsequent attempts to track him drew a blank.

Strangely enough, a man named Selvaram, the taxi driver who took Thompson and Mrs. Mangskau on a trip around Penang island, claimed having heard the couple talk about Tahiti.

“I just assumed they were extending their holiday to Tahiti after finishing in Penang” he had said.

The Malay Mail, 21 March 2013, page 24. [19]

Firstly, what were Thompson's reasons for visiting the Highlands? Moreover, what did he have in mind after the completion of his stay at the resort?

According to Mrs. Mangskau, "(He) was a tired man… That was why he came here for a holiday." She was also quoted in the press as saying, "He was looking forward to going back to Bangkok."[27]

However, Thompson had in fact made plans with Mrs. Mangskau and the Lings to go to Singapore on the morning of 27 March.[28] The Lings were to drive him there so he would be able to keep his dinner appointment with Francis Joseph Galbraith, the United States ambassador to Singapore, and Edward Pollitz, an American capitalist who was exploring the possibility of establishing a textile company in the republic. But the day before that, Thompson disappeared.

Recent information

One researcher believes the clue to Thompson's mystery may lie in some bone fragments that were found at the Cameron Highlands in 1985.[29][30] The remains, without the skull, were discovered by Orang Asli settlers in a grave at the edge of a vegetable plot off the main road in Brinchang.

The Jim Thompson Corner, Time Tunnel museum, Cameron Highlands, West Malaysia.

Captain Philip J. Rivers, a master mariner, said he learned of the discovery from a health officer while researching on Thompson's disappearance in 2007.

The police collected the remains but no connection was made to Thompson's disappearance in Tanah Rata, as they were found in Brinchang, almost 30 years after he was reported as missing.

"The probability is that his body lay undiscovered in the thick under bush, hidden in an unmarked grave after a hit-and-run accident. A DNA on the bones might possibly provide a fuller answer," said Rivers at a lecture organized by the Perak Academy in Ipoh, West Malaysia on Friday, 26 March 2010.

To date, there has been no confirmation that the bones belong to Thompson. According to Rivers, however, “the bones are presently kept in a safe and secure place".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "BUSINESS ABROAD: The Silk King, Time, Monday, 21 April 1958". 
  2. ^ De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  3. ^ "The Disappearance Of Jim Thompson, International Herald Tribune, Wednesday, 26 March 1997". p. 2. 
  4. ^ The American largely responsible for bringing about this relationship was Dr. Kenneth Landon, a former Presbyterian minister who had spent ten years in Thailand as a missionary.
  5. ^ "Jim Thompson's rainbow – how he shared the treasure with the people of Thailand, Eastern Sun, Thursday, 30 March 1967". p. 2. 
  6. ^ De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. pp. 13–14. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  7. ^ a b c De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. p. 23. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  8. ^ a b c d "Cameron Highlands: Malaysia’s enduring ‘Little England’, CNN Travel, Thursday, 27 June 2013". 
  9. ^ "On Thompson’s trail, The Malay Mail, Thursday, 21 March 2013". p. 24. 
  10. ^ "Cloaked in mist and mystery, New Straits Times, Thursday, 4 December 2014". 
  11. ^ De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. pp. 20–21. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  12. ^ De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. p. 95. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  13. ^ "On Thompson’s trail, The Malay Mail, Thursday, 21 March 2013". p. 24. 
  14. ^ "Cloaked in mist and mystery, New Straits Times, Thursday, 4 December 2014". 
  15. ^ "Cameron Highlands: Malaysia’s enduring ‘Little England’, CNN Travel, Thursday, 27 June 2013". 
  16. ^ De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. p. 92. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  17. ^ "Big ground-air hunt in the Highlands, The Straits Times, Wednesday, 29 March 1967". p. 24. 
  18. ^ a b De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. p. 89. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  19. ^ a b c d "On Thompson’s trail, The Malay Mail, Thursday, 21 March 2013". p. 24. 
  20. ^ "THE HUNT (8th day) CONTINUES, Eastern Sun, Monday, 3 April 1967". p. 2. 
  21. ^ a b De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. pp. 23–24. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  22. ^ "Cloaked in mist and mystery, New Straits Times, Thursday, 4 December 2014". 
  23. ^ "Where Is Flamboyant Silk King, Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Saturday, 26 March 1977". p. 83. 
  24. ^ "Cook: I saw millionaire the day he vanished, The Straits Times, Thursday, 30 March 1967". p. 1. 
  25. ^ De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  26. ^ a b De Souza, Edward Roy (2010). SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd ed). Word Association Publishers. p. 93. ISBN 978-1-59571-505-0. LCCN 2009944204. 
  27. ^ "FRIENDS RULE OUT SUICIDE IN JUNGLE, The Straits Times, Thursday, March 30, 1967". p. 18. 
  28. ^ "No sign of missing millionaire so far, The Straits Times, Wednesday, 29 March 1967". p. 24. 
  29. ^ "Researcher: DNA may help unravel the mysterious disappearance of "Thai Silk King", The Star, Wednesday, 31 March 2010". 
  30. ^ "Bones May Cast Some Light to Jim Thompson's Mystery, Ipoh Echo, Thursday, 1 April 2010". 




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