Sunday, January 06, 2008

Jim Thompson: Thailand's not so famous ex-pat

Hemingway in Cuba. Karen Blixen in Kenya. Gauguin in Tahiti. Gertrude Stein in Paris. Some people are famous expats. There are many others who aren't so famous. Like Jim Thompson in Thailand.

An American architect trained at Princeton, Mr. Thompson first visited Thailand while working for the CIA. After his contract was up he returned to Thailand and fell in love with Thai people, culture and especially with Thai silk. He is largely credited with reviving what was then a dwindling cottage industry of silk spinning. Mr. Thompson sent samples of the silks to the great couture houses in Europe and many famous designers immediately placed orders. His fledgling company turned a profit in it's first year of business. Despite his mysterious disappearance in the mountains of Malaysia in the 1970's, his well respected and successful company still produces beautiful textiles, scarves, bags, ties and shawls.The knobby textured candy colored silks are now synonymous with Thailand.

One of our first stops in Bangkok was his former home. It is the second most visited tourist destination in Bangkok, just after the Royal Palace. The whole compound was designed by Mr. Thompson using reclaimed materials from traditional Thai homes.

When you first enter the gates, gravel crunches pleasantly underfoot and a riotous garden of tropical foliage and hanging orchids greets you. Giant blue and green ceramic containers are blooming with waterlilies and koi fish. A trickling waterfall fills a koi pond. Generally I find koi slightly gross, a bit too much like overfed catfish, but these were truly beautiful. They had long fluttering tails and fins that looked like wild manes or chiffon scarves trailing behind them in the wind.

The house is built on stilts to keep it high and dry during the rainy season. Its sculpted rooftop look distinctively Asian, but are actually uniquely Thai. These decorative rooftops were easy to spot all around Bangkok. The figureheads are meant to protect the home from bad spirits.

Upon entering the home all visitors remove their shoes like good Thai people. The entire building was made of teak which feels incredibly smooth and warm underfoot. The high ceilings and open windows make the most of the tropical breezes making air conditioning unnecessary. Mr. Thompson's collection of antique textiles, ceramics and Buddha images are prominently showcased throughout the house, expertly mixed with crisp modern western style furniture. The whole effect was so relaxed and still so chic. It was truly gorgeous. There were no photos allowed inside, so all I can share with you are the pictures we snapped in the garden.

Whenever I encounter a life like this one, I feel inspired but also a little anxious. Here was a person who found work to dedicate his life to. It fulfilled him as a business man, artist and person (and it enriched the lives of people all around him by creating livelihood and reinvigorating a dying art form). What was it about traditional silk weaving that made him fall in love with it to the exclusion of all else? Why that thing?I'm reminded of that scene in Adaptation where Susan Orlean lies in bed in the moonlight thinking "I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately." Its something different for everyone I think, and it takes patience and exploration to discover. I think it is definitely a path worth pursuing.

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