Spinning a yarn

Mention the name Jim Thompson to anyone living in Thailand and they’ll probably show you their JT silk tie or scarf, wax lyrical about how beautiful his Thai house museum is and then top that off with their theory about how the American ex-Office of Strategic Services man disappeared in Malaysian jungle in 1967. He’s a well-known man.

Thompson’s famed revival of Thailand’s silk industry alone would make – well, a good mini-series. Throw in the fascinating story behind the construction of his residence and top that off with the questions surrounding his disappearance and you have the bones to a really meaty mini-series. Which is exactly what the crew at production house Image and Montage, under contract to Nation Multimedia, claim to have created.

With its debut episode due to be screened on iTV on April 1, Silk Knot will chart Thompson’s life in full, and promises to reveal fresh information about his disappearance – although the production team isn’t letting out any secrets just yet.

Ten hours of 16 mm film have been shot for the 10 million baht series, which is a fictionalised account of a journalist who decides to investigate Thompson’s vanishing. Details of Thompson’s life in the series, however, are all based on fact. It’s in Thai with English subtitles, and the intent is to distribute it overseas.

Eric Bunnag-Booth, international marketing manager at JT Thai Silk and also the person responsible for the day-to-day running of the JW Thompson Foundation (a non-profit organisation under Royal patronage), explains that this isn’t the first time someone has sought to do a film about JT.

“When [iTV] contacted me about the mini-series, I thought that if anybody wanted to do something on Jim, they would be most fair,” he says. “We have been contacted throughout the years by producers from all over the world wanting to do a blockbuster on the life of JT – but they have all been more concerned about his CIA connections and disappearance than his revival of the silk industry in Thailand.”

Beverly Jangkamonkulchai, media relations manager for JT Thai Silk, says she’s been impressed by the amount of research the production crew has undertaken.

“They found out a lot more than we knew,” she says. “For instance, they found a restaurant he used to go to in the States, and an old issue of Vogue that mentioned him.” The crew also visited the site of his disappearance in the Cameron Highlands, but understandably enough found few people around who remembered anything about him.

The company assisted in providing props for the filming – ranging from the house itself, which involved juggling both tourists and the crew traipsing through the house simultaneously, to loads of silkworm cocoons.

“They asked for a lot!,” confesses Beverly. “But we liked their ideas. For the weaving village scenes they needed cocoons and this was a big request for us– the volumes they required were quite high.”

The screening of the mini-series will approximately coincide with the grand opening – an exact date is yet to be set – of the exquisite new building located at what insiders are now calling the Jim Thompson ‘complex’: the site that was originally Thompson’s former residence but now includes the separate extension.

The company bought the land at the end of 1998 to protect the entrance to the house.

“Over 110,000 people visited the Museum last year,” Eric says. “We were afraid that somebody would take advantage of the site and destroy the feeling appreciated by so many. We hope that the new structure is in tune with old.”

The new extension consists of a shop, an upstairs bar with electric fans – fan fans, that is – and a banquet hall which seats up to 100 people and also doubles as an exhibition space.

It appears that plenty of people think the space is sophisticated enough to start booking for their dos – the Finance Minister booked in to host a dinner during UNCTAD. Beverly says that groups can book to have a tour of the house, cocktails in the bar area , Thai entertainment and then dinner in the banquet hall. The Oriental is their caterer of choice – “they know where things are in the kitchen” – but you can BYO restaurant if you prefer.

The opening of the building caps what could be described as a two-year renaissance at the company. It has deliberately sought to become associated with young, hip designers and artists such as Nagara (who created the Nagara for JT line) and Montree Toemsombat (see box story) in order to revamp their image as a shop for well-to-do tourists.

The Nagara for JT line was launched during October 1998, and Nagara is now a permanent member of the team, creating three collections a year.

“JT was perceived as being conservative,” Eric says frankly. “Being part of the new generation at JT I wanted to introduce a new image to the public… Nagara has raised JT’s profile – but, please, visit our home furnishing showroom: you’ll see that our designs have always been unique.”

They’ve also diversified their product range to include items such as handbags and toys. “Even our neckties have changed,” says Beverly. “People used to complain about them being too wide for Western tastes [Ed: never!]. So we now have more looms at our factory to allow us to produce new styles.”

Seems like it won’t be long before you’ll be able to mention Jim Thompson to people living anywhere in the world and they are likely to know you are talking about a Thai silk label – and an intriguing man’s living legacy.

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