Jim Thompson and the Burmese Kalaga

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Jim Thompson was an American expat living in Thailand.  During World War II he worked for Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  He was a spy.  He arrived in Bangkok shortly after the end of the war to organize and open the OSS office there.  In Bangkok he worked with Kenneth Landon who was first a missionary in Thailand and then was hired to work for the OSS.  Kenneth’s wife, Margaret, lived with him in Thailand and wrote the book “Anna and the King of Siam” which was also made into the musical, “The King and I”.

By 1948, Jim Thompson had left the OSS and become interested in Thai silk.  He formed the Thai Silk Company and his goal was to revitalize the industry.  In 1951 designer Irene Sheraff was designing costumes for the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I” and decided to use silk from Thompson’s Thai Silk Company.  That was what he needed.  He was a success!  Jim Thompson’s company and the Thai silk industry is thriving to this day.

At one point he thought it would be a good idea to go into Burma and try to revitalize their silk industry as well.  He did not have much luck but there he discovered the royal Kalagas.  These were heavily embroidered tapestries made for the royal palaces of Burma.  The last King of Burma, Thibaw Min, was persuaded to abdicate by the British when they took over the country in 1885.  Some of the tapestries have been around for 150 years.

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Jim Thompson had several of the Kalagas copied and sold them in his shop.  During this time, the late 1950’s, my family was living in Burma and knew all about of Mr Thompson and his silk shop.  They purchased one of these tapestries and it hangs in my parents’ living room to this day.  It is beautiful.

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In 1967 Thompson took a trip to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia on holiday and mysteriously disappeared.  There was an extensive search made but nothing was found.  Nobody knows what happened to him or why.  There is much speculation around him and his disappearance.

He left a house he had designed full of art and antiques from Southeast Asia.  It is now a museum open to the public.

7 thoughts on “Jim Thompson and the Burmese Kalaga

  1. I found this post so fascinating… it took me back to some of my old haunts… Jim Thompson was well known in Malaya when I lived there from 1953 to 56… and I went to boarding school in the Cameron Highlands. I was in Hong Kong when his death mystified us all… I have a strong feeling that he met with an accident.. Malaya was always such a safe place….( apart from the bandits in the early fifties!)

  2. Hi Kathleen, Absolutely wonderful post and gorgeous photos. It seems I’ve been fascinated by Jim Thompson forever. First I fell in love with his beautiful textiles, then I read the history surrounding his life. Your parent’s kalaga is an amazing piece of the past. After visiting his home in Bangkok I became enthralled by the architecture and wrote a post. Thank you so much for filling in more pieces of the puzzle. All the best, Terri
    http://gallivance.net/2012/02/09/my-love-affair-with-jim-thompson/

  3. Interesting story. Also interesting is how we subconsciously couch history with pro-western terminology such as “…persuaded to abdicate by the British…” mea culpa.

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