The best-known American in the picturesque kingdom of Thailand is a greying, well-tanned onetime architect named James H. W. Thompson, 52, who has almost singlehanded saved Thailand's vital silk industry from extinction. When Jim Thompson arrived in Thailand in 1945 as an OSS officer (and stayed on as political adviser to the American minister), silk weaving as a local industry had almost died under the onslaught of cheaper and more durable machine-made silk. Today, almost every ship or plane that leaves Thailand carries Thai silk to some 17 countries, and Thompson's Thai Silk Co. alone employs more than 2,000 Thais in the business of silk growing, dyeing, spinning and weaving. From sales of $36,000 in 1948, Thompson boosted his company to $650,000 in sales last year, hopes to do even better this year.
Jim Thompson got into the silk business because he had an esthetic eye for the glowing colors and uneven texture of the Thai silks. Says he: "It disturbed me that production of this wonderful material had stopped." He left the Army and diplomatic service, took 500 samples to New York, where the silk drew raves from designers, decorators and fashion editors. Thompson lined up an importing firm to handle the silk in the U.S., went back to Thailand and began operating with $700.
He rounded up some 200 silk weavers, most of whom had taken up other trades, supplied them with the raw silk and dyes to turn out finished products on their crude home looms. The silks became so popular with the diplomatic colony and tourists (many of whom ask for "Jim Thompson's place" as soon as they arrive in Bangkok) that Thompson quickly expanded, in 1950 formed his own company with $12,000 capital. Though he is its biggest stockholder, he took pains to make the company a Thai enterprise, accepted only four Americans among his 36 stockholders. His company was soon paying healthy dividends, and Thompson bought two mulberry plantations in northeast Thailand to provide his silk.
So good a job has Jim Thompson done for the Thailand silk industry that he has lured in many Thais. More silk shops have been opened in Bangkok recently than any other business, including one reported to be backed by the wife of Thailand's strongman, Marshal Sarit Thanarat.