JIM THOMPSON AND OTHER WHITE SHADOWS
By Harold Stephens
I was in Khao San Road the other day—to find out what the fuss is about the place—and sat drinking a Fanta in a street side café. At the next table were two backpackers, and I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation. One backpacker mentioned he had been in Thailand for three week. The second backpacker replied, “Wow, you’ve been around. You’re an old timer.” He then went on to ask all kinds of questions.
An old timer in Bangkok, all of three weeks. It’s all relative, I guess. I couldn‘t help recalling the first time I came to Bangkok, that was in 1959, and an old timer I met told me how the city was changing. “You should have been here before, ten years ago, right after the war. It’s not like it used to be.”
Right after the war, he said. We can hardly even imagine what the City of Angeles was like then. What was that song they were singing at the time, “Going to China, or maybe Siam.” The problem was, no one in other parts of the world even knew where Siam was back then. I am reminded of a book by Frederick O’Brien who wrote, White Shadows in the South Seas. He concluded that White Men were “white shadows,” meaning their leave no shadows, no traces that they were ever there.
That’s not quite true for South East Asia. That’s a reason, in part, why I wrote At the Oriental Hotel Bangkok. I wanted to keep alive the names of the many great people who stayed there.
Many have left their mark in Bangkok. Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, they all left something behind––their writing. There were others less well know who history won’t forget. Jorge Orgibet was an expat who wrote about Thailand after the war in his memoir, From Siam to Thailand. It was an interesting book that described life in Bangkok immediately after the war. Jorge, Jim Mysberg, Jim Thompson, to name a few, were hiding out in the jungles with the CIA (the OSS then), and when the Japanese went home, and when the war ended, they liked it here and remained behind. Jorge’s is a good read about Thailand’s transitional period. Jorge did more than write a book, however. He founded the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, and there’s a statue of him at the entrance of the club, a small tribute to a great man.
Jim Myberg was a great storyteller, and a good chess player. He knew just about everyone from the old days, and whenever I needed an answer to questions about Thailand yesterday, he was sure to have the answer. Jim was born in Shanghai and when he first came to Thailand it was by steamer, the only way to get here before the war. He married a Thai lady and lived a few miles outside Bangkok, spending his time between San Francisco and Bangkok. Sadly, there are no more stories. Jim passed away s few years ago. He was a close friend in the early years to Jim Thompson. Robert Stedman is now writing his biography––The Reluctant Spy.
Of course, we all know about Jim Thompson. Some people joke that one day he might just walk through the front door of his now famous Jim Thompson House, but that wouldn’t be likely. He would be about 110 today, along with Bob Hope
Other than the Thai Silk legend and his strange disappearance, Jim did play an important role in the social life on Bangkok. He went home after the war, but his heart was in Thailand that he helped liberate from the Japanese. He came back, bought a quarter share in the Oriental Hotel, and when he and the French lady manager didn’t get along, over his designs for remodeling the hotel, he sold out and began organizing weaves to manufacture Thai silk to specific requirements. With money coming in, he began building his own Thai house. Actually, he bought three old Thai houses upcountry, dismantled and brought them down river, and reassembled them into a great house on a klong in Bangkok. He started a fad, for that wasn’t the only house he built. He built one other house that became equally as famous as his, and that one was for his long time friend who had a gift shop at the Oriental and Trocadero at the time—Connie Mangskau.
The story of Connie is a Weekly Story for another time.
The Oriental Hotel was the hub of social activity in Bangkok. Of course, in the early days, before Kurt Wachtveitl took over the reins, it wasn’t much to brag about, according to Barry Cross. In the early 1950s, Barry was a young account executive working for a public relations firm in Auckland when his boss called him into the office and asked if he wanted to manage a hotel in Bangkok until someone else was found. His first question when offered the position was, “Where’s that?”
When Barry arrived at Don Muang there was no one at the airport to greet him and he had to get to town the best way he could, through flooded roads with rice fields on both side and with water buffalo a traffic hazard. The Indian guard in those days slept on a canvas cot in front of the entrance after midnight. Barry had to wake up him to get into the hotel, and once inside he found a bucket with a mop sitting in the lobby. He wanted to know what was terrible smell. The reception, whom he also had to wake up, said, “Oh that, you will get used it. It’s durian, a local fruit.”
The lobby then was where the Author’s Wing is today, but the overhead was open and when it rained, it rained in the lobby. Barry’s first act was to ban durian. The second was to clean out a room to one side of the lobby that was stacked with junk and old furniture and turn it into a bar. It was the original Bamboo Bar.
There were two English-language newspapers in Bangkok in the 60’s. The Bangkok Post and the Bangkok World. The World was an afternoon paper, popular at the time, but the Post bought it out in the 1980s. The paper was the start for many budding newspaper writers; Harry Rolnick, Bernard Trink, Bob Holiday, and I can include myself. When the World closed it doors Rolnick moved on to Hong Kong; Bernard, Bob and I joined the staff of the Post.
Other than newspaper writers, Bangkok was home to a raft of talented writers who began to make their appearance in the 60s. The Vietnam War
brought a host of GIs to Thailand for R&R, and many who went home liked what they had seen and returned. Many ex-GIs retired in Thailand, and others like, Dean Barrett, find Bangkok as good material for the books they wrote. Dean first arrived as a GI in 1966. He had graduated from Chinese language school and a degree in Asia studies from Hawaii, and ended up in Bangkok, not China. After his discharge he returned to Bangkok. He edited Thai International’s in-flight magazine Sawasdee for 14 year, went to New York is see two of his plays make it on Broadway, but he couldn’t give up Asia. He came back, settled in a bar above the Lone Star Bar on Sukhumvit, and since has turned out a slew of novels. His latest is Murder on the Sky Train.
Some old time newspaper columnists are still around but we don’t hear much from the any more. Unfortunately, in Thailand required retirement is at 60 years of age, and for writers that’s just when their writing is at its best. One case example is Bernard Trink who had been writing the Nite Owl column in the Bangkok Post, keeping his expat audience entertained since 1966, but the Post put him out to pasture. He’s a hard one to replace. Two more old timers from the Post who are soon to retire are Roger Cruchley and Tony Waltham. The question everyone asks is will they go home to England or stick around in Thailand.
Thailand lost a great character when Swiss artist Theo Meier died a few years ago. Poor Theo. He had a hard time making ends meet most of his life. Two years ago a few of his paintings went on sale at Christie’s in Singapore, and they sold for over US$100 thousand. Theo was selling the same paintings for US$40 in the 1970s. But, I guess, we can say the same thing for Van Goh and Paul Gauguin. We can’t deny, they lived it up in their time, with or without money.
Al Eberhart and Joe Maier both came to Bangkok about the same time forty years ago, but not for the same reasons. Al continues to be a bonafide bachelor, and is constantly searching for the right lady, he says. He started Letter-Ads Direct Mail in Bangkok in 1967 and co-authored a novel Tiger in the Mountains. He has a Martial Arts B.B. in Tae Kwon Do and is the longest continuous serving committee member of the American Chamber of Commerce. He was a captain in the USAF. He’s no dummy. If you meet him at the Londoner on Sukhumvit, where all the expats gather for sundowners, he’ll likely to tell you about his special interest in all aspects of gravitational theory and its applications. Al came to live it up and write about it, while Joe is better known as Father Joe to most, a Catholic priest who has settle down in the slum area of Klong Toey and is known for his work with children and the poor. Both men are still active, Father Joe with his following, and Ed with a mailing service.
I am sure, twenty years from now, when the old timers get together, they will say to new comers, “You should have been here at the early turn of the century.” Of course, they will be right. These are the good days, but not good as the old days.