The Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson And Stories of Other Expats in Southeast Asia

Harold Stephens
Publication Date: 
September, 2003
List Price: 
325 pages

The disappearance of Jim Thompson is one of the most baffling mysteries that has come out of the Far East. The story told here is even more interesting because the author met Jim Thompson, and a few days after the Thai Silk King disappeared, he joined other searchers looking for him in the Malay jungle. The author also came to know intimately all the people connected with Thompson, including those who possibly held the clew to his disappearance. As to whether or not the truth will ever be known, the author has his owns thoughts, as he relates in the epilogue.

Although The Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson first appeared in print in 1976, under the title Asian Portraits, the author felt he could not let the memory of these people pass when Asian Portraits went out of print. The text in the new edition is exactly as it originally appeared in Asian Portraits. The only additions are those that appear in the epilogue. Here the author also tells what happened to the many characters after the passing of years.

And, in deed, we have to call them characters. Swiss artist Theo Meier walked across China in the 1930s with an easel on his back painting Chinese warlords; he lived with cannibals in the wild New Hebrides in the South Pacific; he followed the footsteps of French artist Paul Gauguin in the Marquesas; and he live on Bali for 22 years and the last 20 years of his life in Chiengmai in northern Thailand. He didn't actually die as a pauper, for his did have a fine traditional Thai house in Chiengmai, but he had little money in his lifetime. Today his paintings are selling for over a hundred thousand dollars at Christie's auction sales.

Again, what makes this story exciting is that the author knew Theo very well, for they had one thing in common, the South Seas. Theo planned to return to Tahiti aboard the author's schooner Third Sea that he was outfitting on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. Theo even furnished the schooner with some fine carvings and a large oil that hung in the main saloon. Theo died before the schooner sailed on that epic voyage. (For more about the voyage, read The Last Voyage, the Story of Schooner Third Sea.

The author actually knew personally all the people he wrote about, aside from Jim Thompson and Theo Meier. He spent many long hours with Franz Schutzman, the general manager of the Manila Hotel. Franz was so moved by the story of Homer Hicks in the chapter on the "Old Man from Zamboanga" that he was instrumental in getting the US Embassy in Manila to provide Homer with an eclectic wheelchair and other amenities at his home in Zamboanga.

After The Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson appeared in print, the author received a letter from an expat living in Indonesia who recalled seeing Jeff and Robin in their tiny converted turtle boat in a small cove in Java in Indonesia. American author Gore Vidal would be pleased to hear that. When the author met Gore Vidal at a reception at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, the first question Vidal asked was what happened to Jeff and Robin.

Kurt Rolfes who was chewed up by a lion, who had his camera stop a bullet aimed at him in Vietnam (where he was a war correspondent) and who went deep into the Malay jingles looking the Asian Big Foot, has surprised the author by moving into an estate a rich uncle left him in Portland Oregon.

There are other stories that the author is keeping very much alive in The Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson. You will read about deep-sea diver Doug Tiffany, belly dancer Zeina Amara, Brian Hughes who married a Malay princess, and others.